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#431873 Why the World Is Still Getting ...

If you read or watch the news, you’ll likely think the world is falling to pieces. Trends like terrorism, climate change, and a growing population straining the planet’s finite resources can easily lead you to think our world is in crisis.
But there’s another story, a story the news doesn’t often report. This story is backed by data, and it says we’re actually living in the most peaceful, abundant time in history, and things are likely to continue getting better.
The News vs. the Data
The reality that’s often clouded by a constant stream of bad news is we’re actually seeing a massive drop in poverty, fewer deaths from violent crime and preventable diseases. On top of that, we’re the most educated populace to ever walk the planet.
“Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceful era in the existence of our species.” –Steven Pinker
In the last hundred years, we’ve seen the average human life expectancy nearly double, the global GDP per capita rise exponentially, and childhood mortality drop 10-fold.

That’s pretty good progress! Maybe the world isn’t all gloom and doom.If you’re still not convinced the world is getting better, check out the charts in this article from Vox and on Peter Diamandis’ website for a lot more data.
Abundance for All Is Possible
So now that you know the world isn’t so bad after all, here’s another thing to think about: it can get much better, very soon.
In their book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis suggest it may be possible for us to meet and even exceed the basic needs of all the people living on the planet today.
“In the hands of smart and driven innovators, science and technology take things which were once scarce and make them abundant and accessible to all.”
This means making sure every single person in the world has adequate food, water and shelter, as well as a good education, access to healthcare, and personal freedom.
This might seem unimaginable, especially if you tend to think the world is only getting worse. But given how much progress we’ve already made in the last few hundred years, coupled with the recent explosion of information sharing and new, powerful technologies, abundance for all is not as out of reach as you might believe.
Throughout history, we’ve seen that in the hands of smart and driven innovators, science and technology take things which were once scarce and make them abundant and accessible to all.
Napoleon III
In Abundance, Diamandis and Kotler tell the story of how aluminum went from being one of the rarest metals on the planet to being one of the most abundant…
In the 1800s, aluminum was more valuable than silver and gold because it was rarer. So when Napoleon III entertained the King of Siam, the king and his guests were honored by being given aluminum utensils, while the rest of the dinner party ate with gold.
But aluminum is not really rare.
In fact, aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 8.3% of the weight of our planet. But it wasn’t until chemists Charles Martin Hall and Paul Héroult discovered how to use electrolysis to cheaply separate aluminum from surrounding materials that the element became suddenly abundant.
The problems keeping us from achieving a world where everyone’s basic needs are met may seem like resource problems — when in reality, many are accessibility problems.
The Engine Driving Us Toward Abundance: Exponential Technology
History is full of examples like the aluminum story. The most powerful one of the last few decades is information technology. Think about all the things that computers and the internet made abundant that were previously far less accessible because of cost or availability … Here are just a few examples:

Easy access to the world’s information
Ability to share information freely with anyone and everyone
Free/cheap long-distance communication
Buying and selling goods/services regardless of location

Less than two decades ago, when someone reached a certain level of economic stability, they could spend somewhere around $10K on stereos, cameras, entertainment systems, etc — today, we have all that equipment in the palm of our hand.
Now, there is a new generation of technologies heavily dependant on information technology and, therefore, similarly riding the wave of exponential growth. When put to the right use, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, digital manufacturing, nano-materials and digital biology make it possible for us to drastically raise the standard of living for every person on the planet.

These are just some of the innovations which are unlocking currently scarce resources:

IBM’s Watson Health is being trained and used in medical facilities like the Cleveland Clinic to help doctors diagnose disease. In the future, it’s likely we’ll trust AI just as much, if not more than humans to diagnose disease, allowing people all over the world to have access to great diagnostic tools regardless of whether there is a well-trained doctor near them.

Solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuels in some parts of the world, and with advances in new materials and storage, the cost may decrease further. This could eventually lead to nearly-free, clean energy for people across the world.

Google’s GMNT network can now translate languages as well as a human, unlocking the ability for people to communicate globally as we never have before.

Self-driving cars are already on the roads of several American cities and will be coming to a road near you in the next couple years. Considering the average American spends nearly two hours driving every day, not having to drive would free up an increasingly scarce resource: time.

The Change-Makers
Today’s innovators can create enormous change because they have these incredible tools—which would have once been available only to big organizations—at their fingertips. And, as a result of our hyper-connected world, there is an unprecedented ability for people across the planet to work together to create solutions to some of our most pressing problems today.
“In today’s hyperlinked world, solving problems anywhere, solves problems everywhere.” –Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance
According to Diamandis and Kotler, there are three groups of people accelerating positive change.

DIY InnovatorsIn the 1970s and 1980s, the Homebrew Computer Club was a meeting place of “do-it-yourself” computer enthusiasts who shared ideas and spare parts. By the 1990s and 2000s, that little club became known as an inception point for the personal computer industry — dozens of companies, including Apple Computer, can directly trace their origins back to Homebrew. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of the social entrepreneur, the Maker Movement and the DIY Bio movement, which have similar ambitions to democratize social reform, manufacturing, and biology, the way Homebrew democratized computers. These are the people who look for new opportunities and aren’t afraid to take risks to create something new that will change the status-quo.
Techno-PhilanthropistsUnlike the robber barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries, today’s “techno-philanthropists” are not just giving away some of their wealth for a new museum, they are using their wealth to solve global problems and investing in social entrepreneurs aiming to do the same. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given away at least $28 billion, with a strong focus on ending diseases like polio, malaria, and measles for good. Jeff Skoll, after cashing out of eBay with $2 billion in 1998, went on to create the Skoll Foundation, which funds social entrepreneurs across the world. And last year, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged to give away 99% of their $46 billion in Facebook stock during their lifetimes.
The Rising BillionCisco estimates that by 2020, there will be 4.1 billion people connected to the internet, up from 3 billion in 2015. This number might even be higher, given the efforts of companies like Facebook, Google, Virgin Group, and SpaceX to bring internet access to the world. That’s a billion new people in the next several years who will be connected to the global conversation, looking to learn, create and better their own lives and communities.In his book, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C.K. Pahalad writes that finding co-creative ways to serve this rising market can help lift people out of poverty while creating viable businesses for inventive companies.

The Path to Abundance
Eager to create change, innovators armed with powerful technologies can accomplish incredible feats. Kotler and Diamandis imagine that the path to abundance occurs in three tiers:

Basic Needs (food, water, shelter)
Tools of Growth (energy, education, access to information)
Ideal Health and Freedom

Of course, progress doesn’t always happen in a straight, logical way, but having a framework to visualize the needs is helpful.
Many people don’t believe it’s possible to end the persistent global problems we’re facing. However, looking at history, we can see many examples where technological tools have unlocked resources that previously seemed scarce.
Technological solutions are not always the answer, and we need social change and policy solutions as much as we need technology solutions. But we have seen time and time again, that powerful tools in the hands of innovative, driven change-makers can make the seemingly impossible happen.

You can download the full “Path to Abundance” infographic here. It was created under a CC BY-NC-ND license. If you share, please attribute to Singularity University.
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#431859 Digitized to Democratized: These Are the ...

“The Six Ds are a chain reaction of technological progression, a road map of rapid development that always leads to enormous upheaval and opportunity.”
–Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Bold
We live in incredible times. News travels the globe in an instant. Music, movies, games, communication, and knowledge are ever-available on always-connected devices. From biotechnology to artificial intelligence, powerful technologies that were once only available to huge organizations and governments are becoming more accessible and affordable thanks to digitization.
The potential for entrepreneurs to disrupt industries and corporate behemoths to unexpectedly go extinct has never been greater.
One hundred or fifty or even twenty years ago, disruption meant coming up with a product or service people needed but didn’t have yet, then finding a way to produce it with higher quality and lower costs than your competitors. This entailed hiring hundreds or thousands of employees, having a large physical space to put them in, and waiting years or even decades for hard work to pay off and products to come to fruition.

“Technology is disrupting traditional industrial processes, and they’re never going back.”

But thanks to digital technologies developing at exponential rates of change, the landscape of 21st-century business has taken on a dramatically different look and feel.
The structure of organizations is changing. Instead of thousands of employees and large physical plants, modern start-ups are small organizations focused on information technologies. They dematerialize what was once physical and create new products and revenue streams in months, sometimes weeks.
It no longer takes a huge corporation to have a huge impact.
Technology is disrupting traditional industrial processes, and they’re never going back. This disruption is filled with opportunity for forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
The secret to positively impacting the lives of millions of people is understanding and internalizing the growth cycle of digital technologies. This growth cycle takes place in six key steps, which Peter Diamandis calls the Six Ds of Exponentials: digitization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization.
According to Diamandis, cofounder and chairman of Singularity University and founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, when something is digitized it begins to behave like an information technology.

Newly digitized products develop at an exponential pace instead of a linear one, fooling onlookers at first before going on to disrupt companies and whole industries. Before you know it, something that was once expensive and physical is an app that costs a buck.
Newspapers and CDs are two obvious recent examples. The entertainment and media industries are still dealing with the aftermath of digitization as they attempt to transform and update old practices tailored to a bygone era. But it won’t end with digital media. As more of the economy is digitized—from medicine to manufacturing—industries will hop on an exponential curve and be similarly disrupted.
Diamandis’s 6 Ds are critical to understanding and planning for this disruption.
The 6 Ds of Exponential Organizations are Digitized, Deceptive, Disruptive, Demonetized, Dematerialized, and Democratized.

Diamandis uses the contrasting fates of Kodak and Instagram to illustrate the power of the six Ds and exponential thinking.
Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975, but didn’t invest heavily in the new technology, instead sticking with what had always worked: traditional cameras and film. In 1996, Kodak had a $28 billion market capitalization with 95,000 employees.
But the company didn’t pay enough attention to how digitization of their core business was changing it; people were no longer taking pictures in the same way and for the same reasons as before.
After a downward spiral, Kodak went bankrupt in 2012. That same year, Facebook acquired Instagram, a digital photo sharing app, which at the time was a startup with 13 employees. The acquisition’s price tag? $1 billion. And Instagram had been founded only 18 months earlier.
The most ironic piece of this story is that Kodak invented the digital camera; they took the first step toward overhauling the photography industry and ushering it into the modern age, but they were unwilling to disrupt their existing business by taking a risk in what was then uncharted territory. So others did it instead.
The same can happen with any technology that’s just getting off the ground. It’s easy to stop pursuing it in the early part of the exponential curve, when development appears to be moving slowly. But failing to follow through only gives someone else the chance to do it instead.
The Six Ds are a road map showing what can happen when an exponential technology is born. Not every phase is easy, but the results give even small teams the power to change the world in a faster and more impactful way than traditional business ever could.
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#431828 This Self-Driving AI Is Learning to ...

I don’t have to open the doors of AImotive’s white 2015 Prius to see that it’s not your average car. This particular Prius has been christened El Capitan, the name written below the rear doors, and two small cameras are mounted on top of the car. Bundles of wire snake out from them, as well as from the two additional cameras on the car’s hood and trunk.
Inside is where things really get interesting, though. The trunk holds a computer the size of a microwave, and a large monitor covers the passenger glove compartment and dashboard. The center console has three switches labeled “Allowed,” “Error,” and “Active.”
Budapest-based AImotive is working to provide scalable self-driving technology alongside big players like Waymo and Uber in the autonomous vehicle world. On a highway test ride with CEO Laszlo Kishonti near the company’s office in Mountain View, California, I got a glimpse of just how complex that world is.
Camera-Based Feedback System
AImotive’s approach to autonomous driving is a little different from that of some of the best-known systems. For starters, they’re using cameras, not lidar, as primary sensors. “The traffic system is visual and the cost of cameras is low,” Kishonti said. “A lidar can recognize when there are people near the car, but a camera can differentiate between, say, an elderly person and a child. Lidar’s resolution isn’t high enough to recognize the subtle differences of urban driving.”
Image Credit: AImotive
The company’s aiDrive software uses data from the camera sensors to feed information to its algorithms for hierarchical decision-making, grouped under four concurrent activities: recognition, location, motion, and control.
Kishonti pointed out that lidar has already gotten more cost-efficient, and will only continue to do so.
“Ten years ago, lidar was best because there wasn’t enough processing power to do all the calculations by AI. But the cost of running AI is decreasing,” he said. “In our approach, computer vision and AI processing are key, and for safety, we’ll have fallback sensors like radar or lidar.”
aiDrive currently runs on Nvidia chips, which Kishonti noted were originally designed for graphics, and are not terribly efficient given how power-hungry they are. “We’re planning to substitute lower-cost, lower-energy chips in the next six months,” he said.
Testing in Virtual Reality
Waymo recently announced its fleet has now driven four million miles autonomously. That’s a lot of miles, and hard to compete with. But AImotive isn’t trying to compete, at least not by logging more real-life test miles. Instead, the company is doing 90 percent of its testing in virtual reality. “This is what truly differentiates us from competitors,” Kishonti said.
He outlined the three main benefits of VR testing: it can simulate scenarios too dangerous for the real world (such as hitting something), too costly (not every company has Waymo’s funds to run hundreds of cars on real roads), or too time-consuming (like waiting for rain, snow, or other weather conditions to occur naturally and repeatedly).
“Real-world traffic testing is very skewed towards the boring miles,” he said. “What we want to do is test all the cases that are hard to solve.”
On a screen that looked not unlike multiple games of Mario Kart, he showed me the simulator. Cartoon cars cruised down winding streets, outfitted with all the real-world surroundings: people, trees, signs, other cars. As I watched, a furry kangaroo suddenly hopped across one screen. “Volvo had an issue in Australia,” Kishonti explained. “A kangaroo’s movement is different than other animals since it hops instead of running.” Talk about cases that are hard to solve.
AImotive is currently testing around 1,000 simulated scenarios every night, with a steadily-rising curve of successful tests. These scenarios are broken down into features, and the car’s behavior around those features fed into a neural network. As the algorithms learn more features, the level of complexity the vehicles can handle goes up.
On the Road
After Kishonti and his colleagues filled me in on the details of their product, it was time to test it out. A safety driver sat in the driver’s seat, a computer operator in the passenger seat, and Kishonti and I in back. The driver maintained full control of the car until we merged onto the highway. Then he flicked the “Allowed” switch, his copilot pressed the “Active” switch, and he took his hands off the wheel.
What happened next, you ask?
A few things. El Capitan was going exactly the speed limit—65 miles per hour—which meant all the other cars were passing us. When a car merged in front of us or cut us off, El Cap braked accordingly (if a little abruptly). The monitor displayed the feed from each of the car’s cameras, plus multiple data fields and a simulation where a blue line marked the center of the lane, measured by the cameras tracking the lane markings on either side.
I noticed El Cap wobbling out of our lane a bit, but it wasn’t until two things happened in a row that I felt a little nervous: first we went under a bridge, then a truck pulled up next to us, both bridge and truck casting a complete shadow over our car. At that point El Cap lost it, and we swerved haphazardly to the right, narrowly missing the truck’s rear wheels. The safety driver grabbed the steering wheel and took back control of the car.
What happened, Kishonti explained, was that the shadows made it hard for the car’s cameras to see the lane markings. This was a new scenario the algorithm hadn’t previously encountered. If we’d only gone under a bridge or only been next to the truck for a second, El Cap may not have had so much trouble, but the two events happening in a row really threw the car for a loop—almost literally.
“This is a new scenario we’ll add to our testing,” Kishonti said. He added that another way for the algorithm to handle this type of scenario, rather than basing its speed and positioning on the lane markings, is to mimic nearby cars. “The human eye would see that other cars are still moving at the same speed, even if it can’t see details of the road,” he said.
After another brief—and thankfully uneventful—hands-off cruise down the highway, the safety driver took over, exited the highway, and drove us back to the office.
Driving into the Future
I climbed out of the car feeling amazed not only that self-driving cars are possible, but that driving is possible at all. I squint when driving into a tunnel, swerve to avoid hitting a stray squirrel, and brake gradually at stop signs—all without consciously thinking to do so. On top of learning to steer, brake, and accelerate, self-driving software has to incorporate our brains’ and bodies’ unconscious (but crucial) reactions, like our pupils dilating to let in more light so we can see in a tunnel.
Despite all the progress of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computing power, I have a wholly renewed appreciation for the thing that’s been in charge of driving up till now: the human brain.
Kishonti seemed to feel similarly. “I don’t think autonomous vehicles in the near future will be better than the best drivers,” he said. “But they’ll be better than the average driver. What we want to achieve is safe, good-quality driving for everyone, with scalability.”
AImotive is currently working with American tech firms and with car and truck manufacturers in Europe, China, and Japan.
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#431377 The Farms of the Future Will Be ...

Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.

“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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#431371 Amazon Is Quietly Building the Robots of ...

Science fiction is the siren song of hard science. How many innocent young students have been lured into complex, abstract science, technology, engineering, or mathematics because of a reckless and irresponsible exposure to Arthur C. Clarke at a tender age? Yet Arthur C. Clarke has a very famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s the prospect of making that… ahem… magic leap that entices so many people into STEM in the first place. A magic leap that would change the world. How about, for example, having humanoid robots? They could match us in dexterity and speed, perceive the world around them as we do, and be programmed to do, well, more or less anything we can do.
Such a technology would change the world forever.
But how will it arrive? While true sci-fi robots won’t get here right away—the pieces are coming together, and the company best developing them at the moment is Amazon. Where others have struggled to succeed, Amazon has been quietly progressing. Notably, Amazon has more than just a dream, it has the most practical of reasons driving it into robotics.
This practicality matters. Technological development rarely proceeds by magic; it’s a process filled with twists, turns, dead-ends, and financial constraints. New technologies often have to answer questions like “What is this good for, are you being realistic?” A good strategy, then, can be to build something more limited than your initial ambition, but useful for a niche market. That way, you can produce a prototype, have a reasonable business plan, and turn a profit within a decade. You might call these “stepping stone” applications that allow for new technologies to be developed in an economically viable way.
You need something you can sell to someone, soon: that’s how you get investment in your idea. It’s this model that iRobot, developers of the Roomba, used: migrating from military prototypes to robotic vacuum cleaners to become the “boring, successful robot company.” Compare this to Willow Garage, a genius factory if ever there was one: they clearly had ambitions towards a general-purpose, multi-functional robot. They built an impressive device—PR2—and programmed the operating system, ROS, that is still the industry and academic standard to this day.
But since they were unable to sell their robot for much less than $250,000, it was never likely to be a profitable business. This is why Willow Garage is no more, and many workers at the company went into telepresence robotics. Telepresence is essentially videoconferencing with a fancy robot attached to move the camera around. It uses some of the same software (for example, navigation and mapping) without requiring you to solve difficult problems of full autonomy for the robot, or manipulating its environment. It’s certainly one of the stepping-stone areas that various companies are investigating.
Another approach is to go to the people with very high research budgets: the military.
This was the Boston Dynamics approach, and their incredible achievements in bipedal locomotion saw them getting snapped up by Google. There was a great deal of excitement and speculation about Google’s “nightmare factory” whenever a new slick video of a futuristic militarized robot surfaced. But Google broadly backed away from Replicant, their robotics program, and Boston Dynamics was sold. This was partly due to PR concerns over the Terminator-esque designs, but partly because they didn’t see the robotics division turning a profit. They hadn’t found their stepping stones.
This is where Amazon comes in. Why Amazon? First off, they just announced that their profits are up by 30 percent, and yet the company is well-known for their constantly-moving Day One philosophy where a great deal of the profits are reinvested back into the business. But lots of companies have ambition.
One thing Amazon has that few other corporations have, as well as big financial resources, is viable stepping stones for developing the technologies needed for this sort of robotics to become a reality. They already employ 100,000 robots: these are of the “pragmatic, boring, useful” kind that we’ve profiled, which move around the shelves in warehouses. These robots are allowing Amazon to develop localization and mapping software for robots that can autonomously navigate in the simple warehouse environment.
But their ambitions don’t end there. The Amazon Robotics Challenge is a multi-million dollar competition, open to university teams, to produce a robot that can pick and package items in warehouses. The problem of grasping and manipulating a range of objects is not a solved one in robotics, so this work is still done by humans—yet it’s absolutely fundamental for any sci-fi dream robot.
Google, for example, attempted to solve this problem by hooking up 14 robot hands to machine learning algorithms and having them grasp thousands of objects. Although results were promising, the 10 to 20 percent failure rate for grasps is too high for warehouse use. This is a perfect stepping stone for Amazon; should they crack the problem, they will likely save millions in logistics.
Another area where humanoid robotics—especially bipedal locomotion, or walking, has been seriously suggested—is in the last mile delivery problem. Amazon has shown willingness to be creative in this department with their notorious drone delivery service. In other words, it’s all very well to have your self-driving car or van deliver packages to people’s doors, but who puts the package on the doorstep? It’s difficult for wheeled robots to navigate the full range of built environments that exist. That’s why bipedal robots like CASSIE, developed by Oregon State, may one day be used to deliver parcels.
Again: no one more than Amazon stands to profit from cracking this technology. The line from robotics research to profit is very clear.
So, perhaps one day Amazon will have robots that can move around and manipulate their environments. But they’re also working on intelligence that will guide those robots and make them truly useful for a variety of tasks. Amazon has an AI, or at least the framework for an AI: it’s called Alexa, and it’s in tens of millions of homes. The Alexa Prize, another multi-million-dollar competition, is attempting to make Alexa more social.
To develop a conversational AI, at least using the current methods of machine learning, you need data on tens of millions of conversations. You need to understand how people will try to interact with the AI. Amazon has access to this in Alexa, and they’re using it. As owners of the leading voice-activated personal assistant, they have an ecosystem of developers creating apps for Alexa. It will be integrated with the smart home and the Internet of Things. It is a very marketable product, a stepping stone for robot intelligence.
What’s more, the company can benefit from its huge sales infrastructure. For Amazon, having an AI in your home is ideal, because it can persuade you to buy more products through its website. Unlike companies like Google, Amazon has an easy way to make a direct profit from IoT devices, which could fuel funding.
For a humanoid robot to be truly useful, though, it will need vision and intelligence. It will have to understand and interpret its environment, and react accordingly. The way humans learn about our environment is by getting out and seeing it. This is something that, for example, an Alexa coupled to smart glasses would be very capable of doing. There are rumors that Alexa’s AI will soon be used in security cameras, which is an ideal stepping stone task to train an AI to process images from its environment, truly perceiving the world and any threats it might contain.
It’s a slight exaggeration to say that Amazon is in the process of building a secret robot army. The gulf between our sci-fi vision of robots that can intelligently serve us, rather than mindlessly assemble cars, is still vast. But in quietly assembling many of the technologies needed for intelligent, multi-purpose robotics—and with the unique stepping stones they have along the way—Amazon might just be poised to leap that gulf. As if by magic.
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