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#436202 Trump CTO Addresses AI, Facial ...

Michael Kratsios, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, took the stage at Stanford University last week to field questions from Stanford’s Eileen Donahoe and attendees at the 2019 Fall Conference of the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI).

Kratsios, the fourth to hold the U.S. CTO position since its creation by President Barack Obama in 2009, was confirmed in August as President Donald Trump’s first CTO. Before joining the Trump administration, he was chief of staff at investment firm Thiel Capital and chief financial officer of hedge fund Clarium Capital. Donahoe is Executive Director of Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator and served as the first U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council during the Obama Administration.

The conversation jumped around, hitting on both accomplishments and controversies. Kratsios touted the administration’s success in fixing policy around the use of drones, its memorandum on STEM education, and an increase in funding for basic research in AI—though the magnitude of that increase wasn’t specified. He pointed out that the Trump administration’s AI policy has been a continuation of the policies of the Obama administration, and will continue to build on that foundation. As proof of this, he pointed to Trump’s signing of the American AI Initiative earlier this year. That executive order, Kratsios said, was intended to bring various government agencies together to coordinate their AI efforts and to push the idea that AI is a tool for the American worker. The AI Initiative, he noted, also took into consideration that AI will cause job displacement, and asked private companies to pledge to retrain workers.

The administration, he said, is also looking to remove barriers to AI innovation. In service of that goal, the government will, in the next month or so, release a regulatory guidance memo instructing government agencies about “how they should think about AI technologies,” said Kratsios.

U.S. vs China in AI

A few of the exchanges between Kratsios and Donahoe hit on current hot topics, starting with the tension between the U.S. and China.

Donahoe:

“You talk a lot about unique U.S. ecosystem. In which aspect of AI is the U.S. dominant, and where is China challenging us in dominance?

Kratsios:

“They are challenging us on machine vision. They have more data to work with, given that they have surveillance data.”

Donahoe:

“To what extent would you say the quantity of data collected and available will be a determining factor in AI dominance?”

Kratsios:

“It makes a big difference in the short term. But we do research on how we get over these data humps. There is a future where you don’t need as much data, a lot of federal grants are going to [research in] how you can train models using less data.”

Donahoe turned the conversation to a different tension—that between innovation and values.

Donahoe:

“A lot of conversation yesterday was about the tension between innovation and values, and how do you hold those things together and lead in both realms.”

Kratsios:

“We recognized that the U.S. hadn’t signed on to principles around developing AI. In May, we signed [the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Principles on Artificial Intelligence], coming together with other Western democracies to say that these are values that we hold dear.

[Meanwhile,] we have adversaries around the world using AI to surveil people, to suppress human rights. That is why American leadership is so critical: We want to come out with the next great product. And we want our values to underpin the use cases.”

A member of the audience pushed further:

“Maintaining U.S. leadership in AI might have costs in terms of individuals and society. What costs should individuals and society bear to maintain leadership?”

Kratsios:

“I don’t view the world that way. Our companies big and small do not hesitate to talk about the values that underpin their technology. [That is] markedly different from the way our adversaries think. The alternatives are so dire [that we] need to push efforts to bake the values that we hold dear into this technology.”

Facial recognition

And then the conversation turned to the use of AI for facial recognition, an application which (at least for police and other government agencies) was recently banned in San Francisco.

Donahoe:

“Some private sector companies have called for government regulation of facial recognition, and there already are some instances of local governments regulating it. Do you expect federal regulation of facial recognition anytime soon? If not, what ought the parameters be?”

Kratsios:

“A patchwork of regulation of technology is not beneficial for the country. We want to avoid that. Facial recognition has important roles—for example, finding lost or displaced children. There are use cases, but they need to be underpinned by values.”

A member of the audience followed up on that topic, referring to some data presented earlier at the HAI conference on bias in AI:

“Frequently the example of finding missing children is given as the example of why we should not restrict use of facial recognition. But we saw Joy Buolamwini’s presentation on bias in data. I would like to hear your thoughts about how government thinks we should use facial recognition, knowing about this bias.”

Kratsios:

“Fairness, accountability, and robustness are things we want to bake into any technology—not just facial recognition—as we build rules governing use cases.”

Immigration and innovation

A member of the audience brought up the issue of immigration:

“One major pillar of innovation is immigration, does your office advocate for it?”

Kratsios:

“Our office pushes for best and brightest people from around the world to come to work here and study here. There are a few efforts we have made to move towards a more merit-based immigration system, without congressional action. [For example, in] the H1-B visa system, you go through two lotteries. We switched the order of them in order to get more people with advanced degrees through.”

The government’s tech infrastructure

Donahoe brought the conversation around to the tech infrastructure of the government itself:

“We talk about the shiny object, AI, but the 80 percent is the unsexy stuff, at federal and state levels. We don’t have a modern digital infrastructure to enable all the services—like a research cloud. How do we create this digital infrastructure?”

Kratsios:

“I couldn’t agree more; the least partisan issue in Washington is about modernizing IT infrastructure. We spend like $85 billion a year on IT at the federal level, we can certainly do a better job of using those dollars.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436149 Blue Frog Robotics Answers (Some of) Our ...

In September of 2015, Buddy the social home robot closed its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign more than 600 percent over its funding goal. A thousand people pledged for a robot originally scheduled to be delivered in December of 2016. But nearly three years later, the future of Buddy is still unclear. Last May, Blue Frog Robotics asked for forgiveness from its backers and announced the launch of an “equity crowdfunding campaign” to try to raise the additional funding necessary to deliver the robot in April of 2020.

By the time the crowdfunding campaign launched in August, the delivery date had slipped again, to September 2020, even as Blue Frog attempted to draw investors by estimating that sales of Buddy would “increase from 2000 robots in 2020 to 20,000 in 2023.” Blue Frog’s most recent communication with backers, in September, mentions a new CTO and a North American office, but does little to reassure backers of Buddy that they’ll ever be receiving their robot.

Backers of the robot are understandably concerned about the future of Buddy, so we sent a series of questions to the founder and CEO of Blue Frog Robotics, Rodolphe Hasselvander.

We’ve edited this interview slightly for clarity, but we should also note that Hasselvander was unable to provide answers to every question. In particular, we asked for some basic information about Blue Frog’s near-term financial plans, on which the entire future of Buddy seems to depend. We’ve left those questions in the interview anyway, along with Hasselvander’s response.

1. At this point, how much additional funding is necessary to deliver Buddy to backers?
2. Assuming funding is successful, when can backers expect to receive Buddy?
3. What happens if the fundraising goal is not met?
4. You estimate that sales of Buddy will increase 10x over three years. What is this estimate based on?

Rodolphe Hasselvander: Regarding the questions 1-4, unfortunately, as we are fundraising in a Regulation D, we do not comment on prospect, customer data, sales forecasts, or figures. Please refer to our press release here to have information about the fundraising.

5. Do you feel that you are currently being transparent enough about this process to satisfy backers?
6. Buddy’s launch date has moved from April 2020 to September 2020 over the last four months. Why should backers remain confident about Buddy’s schedule?

Since the last newsletter, we haven’t changed our communication, the backers will be the first to receive their Buddy, and we plan an official launch in September 2020.

7. What is the goal of My Buddy World?

At Blue Frog, we think that matching a great product with a big market can only happen through continual experimentation, iteration and incorporation of customer feedback. That’s why we created the forum My Buddy World. It has been designed for our Buddy Community to join us, discuss the world’s first emotional robot, and create with us. The objective is to deepen our conversation with Buddy’s fans and users, stay agile in testing our hypothesis and validate our product-market fit. We trust the value of collaboration. Behind Buddy, there is a team of roboticists, engineers, and programmers that are eager to know more about our consumers’ needs and are excited to work with them to create the perfect human/robot experience.

8. How is the current version of Buddy different from the 2015 version that backers pledged for during the successful crowdfunding campaign, in both hardware and software?

We have completely revised some parts of Buddy as well as replaced and/or added more accurate and reliable components to ensure we fully satisfy our customers’ requirements for a mature and high-quality robot from day one. We sourced more innovative components to make sure that Buddy has the most up-to-date technologies such as adding four microphones, a high def thermal matrix, a 3D camera, an 8-megapixel RGB camera, time-of-flight sensors, and touch sensors.
If you want more info, we just posted an article about what is Buddy here.

9. Will the version of Buddy that ships to backers in 2020 do everything that that was shown in the original crowdfunding video?

Concerning the capabilities of Buddy regarding the video published on YouTube, I confirm that Buddy will be able to do everything you can see, like patrol autonomously and secure your home, telepresence, mathematics applications, interactive stories for children, IoT/smart home management, face recognition, alarm clock, reminder, message/photo sharing, music, hands free call, people following, games like hide and seek (and more). In addition, everyone will be able to create their own apps thanks to the “BuddyLab” application.

10. What makes you confident that Buddy will be successful when Jibo, Kuri, and other social robots have not?

Consumer robotics is a new market. Some people think it is a tough one. But we, at Blue Frog Robotics, believe it is a path of learning, understanding, and finding new ways to serve consumers. Here are the five key factors that will make Buddy successful.

1) A market-fit robot

Blue Frog Robotics is a consumer-centric company. We know that a successful business model and a compelling fit to market Buddy must come up from solving consumers’ frustrations and problems in a way that’s new and exciting. We started from there.

By leveraged existing research and syndicated consumer data sets to understand our customers’ needs and aspirations, we get that creating a robot is not about the best tech innovation and features, but always about how well technology becomes a service to one’s basic human needs and assets: convenience, connection, security, fun, self-improvement, and time. To answer to these consumers’ needs and wants, we designed an all-in-one robot with four vital capabilities: intelligence, emotionality, mobility, and customization.

With his multi-purpose brain, he addresses a broad range of needs in modern-day life, from securing homes to carrying out his owners’ daily activities, from helping people with disabilities to educating children, from entertaining to just becoming a robot friend.

Buddy is a disruptive innovative robot that is about to transform the way we live, learn, utilize information, play, and even care about our health.
2) Endless possibilities

One of the major advantages of Buddy is his adaptability. Beyond to be adorable, playful, talkative, and to accompany anyone in their daily life at home whether you are comfortable with technology or not, he offers via his platform applications to engage his owners in a wide range of activities. From fitness to cooking, from health monitoring to education, from games to meditation, the combination of intelligence, sensors, mobility, multi-touch panel opens endless possibilities for consumers and organizations to adapt their Buddy to their own needs.
3) An affordable price

Buddy will be the first robot combining smart, social, and mobile capabilities and a developed platform with a personality to enter the U.S. market at affordable price.

Our competitors are social or assistant robots but rarely both. Competitors differentiate themselves by features: mobile, non-mobile; by shapes: humanoid or not; by skills: social versus smart; targeting a specific domain like entertainment, retail assistant, eldercare, or education for children; and by price. Regarding our six competitors: Moorebot, Elli-Q, and Olly are not mobile; Lynx and Nao are in toy category; Pepper is above $10k targeting B2B market; and finally, Temi can’t be considered an emotional robot.
Buddy remains highly differentiated as an all-in-one, best of his class experience, covering the needs for social interactions and assistance of his owners at each stage of their life at an affordable price.

The price range of Buddy will be between US $1700 and $2000.

4) A winning business model

Buddy’s great business model combines hardware, software, and services, and provides game-changing convenience for consumers, organizations, and developers.

Buddy offers a multi-sided value proposition focused on three vertical markets: direct consumers, corporations (healthcare, education, hospitality), and developers. The model creates engagement and sustained usage and produces stable and diverse cash flow.
5) A Passion for people and technology

From day one, we have always believed in the power of our dream: To bring the services and the fun of an emotional robot in every house, every hospital, in every care house. Each day, we refuse to think that we are stuck or limited; we work hard to make Buddy a reality that will help people all over the world and make them smile.

While we certainly appreciate Hasselvander’s consistent optimism and obvious enthusiasm, we’re obligated to point out that some of our most important questions were not directly answered. We haven’t learned anything that makes us all that much more confident that Blue Frog will be able to successfully deliver Buddy this time. Hasselvander also didn’t address our specific question about whether he feels like Blue Frog’s communication strategy with backers has been adequate, which is particularly relevant considering that over the four months between the last two newsletters, Buddy’s launch date slipped by six months.

At this point, all we can do is hope that the strategy Blue Frog has chosen will be successful. We’ll let you know if as soon as we learn more.

[ Buddy ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436094 Agility Robotics Unveils Upgraded Digit ...

Last time we saw Agility Robotics’ Digit biped, it was picking up a box from a Ford delivery van and autonomously dropping it off on a porch, while at the same time managing to not trip over stairs, grass, or small children. As a demo, it was pretty impressive, but of course there’s an enormous gap between making a video of a robot doing a successful autonomous delivery and letting that robot out into the semi-structured world and expecting it to reliably do a good job.

Agility Robotics is aware of this, of course, and over the last six months they’ve been making substantial improvements to Digit to make it more capable and robust. A new video posted today shows what’s new with the latest version of Digit—Digit v2.

We appreciate Agility Robotics foregoing music in the video, which lets us hear exactly what Digit sounds like in operation. The most noticeable changes are in Digit’s feet, torso, and arms, and I was particularly impressed to see Digit reposition the box on the table before grasping it to make sure that it could get a good grip. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell what’s new, so we asked Agility Robotics’ CEO Damion Shelton to get us up to speed.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you summarize the differences between Digit v1 and v2? We’re particularly interested in the new feet.

Damion Shelton: The feet now include a roll degree of freedom, so that Digit can resist lateral forces without needing to side step. This allows Digit v2 to balance on one foot statically, which Digit v1 and Cassie could not do. The larger foot also dramatically decreases load per unit area, for improved performance on very soft surfaces like sand.

The perception stack includes four Intel RealSense cameras used for obstacle detection and pick/place, plus the lidar. In Digit v1, the perception systems were brought up incrementally over time for development purposes. In Digit v2, all perception systems are active from the beginning and tied to a dedicated computer. The perception system is used for a number of additional things beyond manipulation, which we’ll start to show in the next few weeks.

The torso changes are a bit more behind-the-scenes. All of the electronics in it are now fully custom, thermally managed, and environmentally sealed. We’ve also included power and ethernet to a payload bay that can fit either a NUC or Jetson module (or other customer payload).

What exactly are we seeing in the video in terms of Digit’s autonomous capabilities?

At the moment this is a demonstration of shared autonomy. Picking and placing the box is fully autonomous. Balance and footstep placement are fully autonomous, but guidance and obstacle avoidance are under local teleop. It’s no longer a radio controller as in early videos; we’re not ready to reveal our current controller design but it’s a reasonably significant upgrade. This is v2 hardware, so there’s one more full version in development prior to the 2020 launch, which will expand the autonomy envelope significantly.

“This is a demonstration of shared autonomy. Picking and placing the box is fully autonomous. Balance and footstep placement are fully autonomous, but guidance and obstacle avoidance are under local teleop. It’s no longer a radio controller as in early videos; we’re not ready to reveal our current controller design but it’s a reasonably significant upgrade”
—Damion Shelton, Agility Robotics

What are some unique features or capabilities of Digit v2 that might not be obvious from the video?

For those who’ve used Cassie robots, the power-up and power-down ergonomics are a lot more user friendly. Digit can be disassembled into carry-on luggage sized pieces (give or take) in under 5 minutes for easy transport. The battery charges in-situ using a normal laptop-style charger.

I’m curious about this “stompy” sort of gait that we see in Digit and many other bipedal robots—are there significant challenges or drawbacks to implementing a more human-like (and presumably quieter) heel-toe gait?

There are no drawbacks other than increased complexity in controls and foot design. With Digit v2, the larger surface area helps with the noise, and v2 has similar or better passive-dynamic performance as compared to Cassie or Digit v1. The foot design is brand new, and new behaviors like heel-toe are an active area of development.

How close is Digit v2 to a system that you’d be comfortable operating commercially?

We’re on track for a 2020 launch for Digit v3. Changes from v2 to v3 are mostly bug-fix in nature, with a few regulatory upgrades like full battery certification. Safety is a major concern for us, and we have launch customers that will be operating Digit in a safe environment, with a phased approach to relaxing operational constraints. Digit operates almost exclusively under force control (as with cobots more generally), but at the moment we’ll err on the side of caution during operation until we have the stats to back up safety and reliability. The legged robot industry has too much potential for us to screw it up by behaving irresponsibly.

It will be a while before Digit (or any other humanoid robot) is operating fully autonomously in crowds of people, but there are so many large market opportunities (think indoor factory/warehouse environments) to address prior to that point that we expect to mature the operational safety side of things well in advance of having saturated the more robot-tolerant markets.

[ Agility Robotics ] 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

#435828 Video Friday: Boston Dynamics’ ...

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

RoboBusiness 2019 – October 1-3, 2019 – Santa Clara, Calif., USA
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

You’ve almost certainly seen the new Spot and Atlas videos from Boston Dynamics, if for no other reason than we posted about Spot’s commercial availability earlier this week. But what, are we supposed to NOT include them in Video Friday anyway? Psh! Here you go:

[ Boston Dynamics ]

Eight deadly-looking robots. One Giant Nut trophy. Tonight is the BattleBots season finale, airing on Discovery, 8 p.m. ET, or check your local channels.

[ BattleBots ]

Thanks Trey!

Speaking of battling robots… Having giant robots fight each other is one of those things that sounds really great in theory, but doesn’t work out so well in reality. And sadly, MegaBots is having to deal with reality, which means putting their giant fighting robot up on eBay.

As of Friday afternoon, the current bid is just over $100,000 with a week to go.

[ MegaBots ]

Michigan Engineering has figured out the secret formula to getting 150,000 views on YouTube: drone plus nail gun.

[ Michigan Engineering ]

Michael Burke from the University of Edinburgh writes:

We’ve been learning to scoop grapefruit segments using a PR2, by “feeling” the difference between peel and pulp. We use joint torque measurements to predict the probability that the knife is in the peel or pulp, and use this to apply feedback control to a nominal cutting trajectory learned from human demonstration, so that we remain in a position of maximum uncertainty about which medium we’re cutting. This means we slice along the boundary between the two mediums. It works pretty well!

[ Paper ] via [ Robust Autonomy and Decisions Group ]

Thanks Michael!

Hey look, it’s Jan with eight EMYS robot heads. Hi, Jan! Hi, EMYSes!

[ EMYS ]

We’re putting the KRAKEN Arm through its paces, demonstrating that it can unfold from an Express Rack locker on the International Space Station and access neighboring lockers in NASA’s FabLab system to enable transfer of materials and parts between manufacturing, inspection, and storage stations. The KRAKEN arm will be able to change between multiple ’end effector’ tools such as grippers and inspection sensors – those are in development so they’re not shown in this video.

[ Tethers Unlimited ]

UBTECH’s Alpha Mini Robot with Smart Robot’s “Maatje” software is offering healthcare service to children at Praktijk Intraverte Multidisciplinary Institution in Netherlands.

This institution is using Alpha Mini in counseling children’s behavior. Alpha Mini can move and talk to children and offers games and activities to stimulate and interact with them. Alpha Mini talks, helps and motivates children thereby becoming more flexible in society.

[ UBTECH ]

Some impressive work here from Anusha Nagabandi, Kurt Konoglie, Sergey Levine, Vikash Kumar at Google Brain, training a dexterous multi-fingered hand to do that thing with two balls that I’m really bad at.

Dexterous multi-fingered hands can provide robots with the ability to flexibly perform a wide range of manipulation skills. However, many of the more complex behaviors are also notoriously difficult to control: Performing in-hand object manipulation, executing finger gaits to move objects, and exhibiting precise fine motor skills such as writing, all require finely balancing contact forces, breaking and reestablishing contacts repeatedly, and maintaining control of unactuated objects. In this work, we demonstrate that our method of online planning with deep dynamics models (PDDM) addresses both of these limitations; we show that improvements in learned dynamics models, together with improvements in online model-predictive control, can indeed enable efficient and effective learning of flexible contact-rich dexterous manipulation skills — and that too, on a 24-DoF anthropomorphic hand in the real world, using just 2-4 hours of purely real-world data to learn to simultaneously coordinate multiple free-floating objects.

[ PDDM ]

Thanks Vikash!

CMU’s Ballbot has a deceptively light touch that’s ideal for leading people around.

A paper on this has been submitted to IROS 2019.

[ CMU ]

The Autonomous Robots Lab at the University of Nevada is sharing some of the work they’ve done on path planning and exploration for aerial robots during the DARPA SubT Challenge.

[ Autonomous Robots Lab ]

More proof that anything can be a drone if you staple some motors to it. Even 32 feet of styrofoam insulation.

[ YouTube ]

Whatever you think of military drones, we can all agree that they look cool.

[ Boeing ]

I appreciate the fact that iCub has eyelids, I really do, but sometimes, it ends up looking kinda sleepy in research videos.

[ EPFL LASA ]

Video shows autonomous flight of a lightweight aerial vehicle outdoors and indoors on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. The vehicle is equipped with limited onboard sensing from a front-facing camera and a proximity sensor. The aerial autonomy is enabled by utilizing a 3D prior map built in Step 1.

[ CMU ]

The Stanford Space Robotics Facility allows researchers to test innovative guidance and navigation algorithms on a realistic frictionless, underactuated system.

[ Stanford ASL ]

In this video, Ian and CP discuss Misty’s many capabilities including robust locomotion, obstacle avoidance, 3D mapping/SLAM, face detection and recognition, sound localization, hardware extensibility, photo and video capture, and programmable personality. They also talk about some of the skills he’s built using these capabilities (and others) and how those skills can be expanded upon by you.

[ Misty Robotics ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from Aaron Parness at Caltech and NASA JPL, on “Robotic Grippers for Planetary Applications.”

The previous generation of NASA missions to the outer solar system discovered salt water oceans on Europa and Enceladus, each with more liquid water than Earth – compelling targets to look for extraterrestrial life. Closer to home, JAXA and NASA have imaged sky-light entrances to lava tube caves on the Moon more than 100 m in diameter and ESA has characterized the incredibly varied and complex terrain of Comet 67P. While JPL has successfully landed and operated four rovers on the surface of Mars using a 6-wheeled rocker-bogie architecture, future missions will require new mobility architectures for these extreme environments. Unfortunately, the highest value science targets often lie in the terrain that is hardest to access. This talk will explore robotic grippers that enable missions to these extreme terrains through their ability to grip a wide variety of surfaces (shapes, sizes, and geotechnical properties). To prepare for use in space where repair or replacement is not possible, we field-test these grippers and robots in analog extreme terrain on Earth. Many of these systems are enabled by advances in autonomy. The talk will present a rapid overview of my work and a detailed case study of an underactuated rock gripper for deflecting asteroids.

[ CMU ]

Rod Brooks gives some of the best robotics talks ever. He gave this one earlier this week at UC Berkeley, on “Steps Toward Super Intelligence and the Search for a New Path.”

[ UC Berkeley ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots