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#436234 Robot Gift Guide 2019

Welcome to the eighth edition of IEEE Spectrum’s Robot Gift Guide!

This year we’re featuring 15 robotic products that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. As always, we tried to include a broad range of robot types and prices, focusing mostly on items released this year. (A reminder: While we provide links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of research may result in better deals.)

If you need even more robot gift ideas, take a look at our past guides: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Some of those robots are still great choices and might be way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And if you have suggestions that you’d like to share, post a comment below to help the rest of us find the perfect robot gift.

Skydio 2

Image: Skydio

What makes robots so compelling is their autonomy, and the Skydio 2 is one of the most autonomous robots we’ve ever seen. It uses an array of cameras to map its environment and avoid obstacles in real-time, making flight safe and effortless and enabling the kinds of shots that would be impossible otherwise. Seriously, this thing is magical, and it’s amazing that you can actually buy one.
$1,000
Skydio
UBTECH Jimu MeeBot 2

Image: UBTECH

The Jimu MeeBot 2.0 from UBTECH is a STEM education robot designed to be easy to build and program. It includes six servo motors, a color sensor, and LED lights. An app for iPhone or iPad provides step-by-step 3D instructions, and helps you code different behaviors for the robot. It’s available exclusively from Apple.
$130
Apple
iRobot Roomba s9+

Image: iRobot

We know that $1,400 is a crazy amount of money to spend on a robot vacuum, but the Roomba s9+ is a crazy robot vacuum. As if all of its sensors and mapping intelligence wasn’t enough, it empties itself, which means that you can have your floors vacuumed every single day for a month and you don’t have to even think about it. This is what home robots are supposed to be.
$1,400
iRobot
PFF Gita

Photo: Piaggio Fast Forward

Nobody likes carrying things, which is why Gita is perfect for everyone with an extra $3,000 lying around. Developed by Piaggio Fast Forward, this autonomous robot will follow you around with a cargo hold full of your most important stuff, and do it in a way guaranteed to attract as much attention as possible.
$3,250
Gita
DJI Mavic Mini

Photo: DJI

It’s tiny, it’s cheap, and it takes good pictures—what more could you ask for from a drone? And for $400, this is an excellent drone to get if you’re on a budget and comfortable with manual flight. Keep in mind that while the Mavic Mini is small enough that you don’t need to register it with the FAA, you do still need to follow all the same rules and regulations.
$400
DJI
LEGO Star Wars Droid Commander

Image: LEGO

Designed for kids ages 8+, this LEGO set includes more than 1,000 pieces, enough to build three different droids: R2-D2, Gonk Droid, and Mouse Droid. Using a Bluetooth-controlled robotic brick called Move Hub, which connects to the LEGO BOOST Star Wars app, kids can change how the robots behave and solve challenges, learning basic robotics and coding skills.
$200
LEGO
Sony Aibo

Photo: Sony

Robot pets don’t get much more sophisticated (or expensive) than Sony’s Aibo. Strictly speaking, it’s one of the most complex consumer robots you can buy, and Sony continues to add to Aibo’s software. Recent new features include user programmability, and the ability to “feed” it.
$2,900 (free aibone and paw pads until 12/29/2019)
Sony
Neato Botvac D4 Connected

Photo: Neato

The Neato Botvac D4 may not have all of the features of its fancier and more expensive siblings, but it does have the features that you probably care the most about: The ability to make maps of its environment for intelligent cleaning (using lasers!), along with user-defined no-go lines that keep it where you want it. And it cleans quite well, too.
$530 $350 (sale)
Neato Robotics
Cubelets Curiosity Set

Photo: Modular Robotics

Cubelets are magnetic blocks that you can snap together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. The newest set, called Curiosity, is designed for kids ages 4+ and comes with 10 robotic cubes. These include light and distance sensors, motors, and a Bluetooth module, which connects the robot constructions to the Cubelets app.
$250
Modular Robotics
Tertill

Photo: Franklin Robotics

Tertill does one simple job: It weeds your garden. It’s waterproof, dirt proof, solar powered, and fully autonomous, meaning that you can leave it out in your garden all summer and just enjoy eating your plants rather than taking care of them.
$350
Tertill
iRobot Root

Photo: iRobot

Root was originally developed by Harvard University as a tool to help kids progressively learn to code. iRobot has taken over Root and is now supporting the curriculum, which starts for kids before they even know how to read and should keep them busy for years afterwards.
$200
iRobot
LOVOT

Image: Lovot

Let’s be honest: Nobody is really quite sure what LOVOT is. We can all agree that it’s kinda cute, though. And kinda weird. But cute. Created by Japanese robotics startup Groove X, LOVOT does have a whole bunch of tech packed into its bizarre little body and it will do its best to get you to love it.
$2,750 (¥300,000)
LOVOT
Sphero RVR

Photo: Sphero

RVR is a rugged, versatile, easy to program mobile robot. It’s a development platform designed to be a bridge between educational robots like Sphero and more sophisticated and expensive systems like Misty. It’s mostly affordable, very expandable, and comes from a company with a lot of experience making robots.
$250
Sphero
“How to Train Your Robot”

Image: Lawrence Hall of Science

Aimed at 4th and 5th graders, “How to Train Your Robot,” written by Blooma Goldberg, Ken Goldberg, and Ashley Chase, and illustrated by Dave Clegg, is a perfect introduction to robotics for kids who want to get started with designing and building robots. But the book isn’t just for beginners: It’s also a fun, inspiring read for kids who are already into robotics and want to go further—it even introduces concepts like computer simulations and deep learning. You can download a free digital copy or request hardcopies here.
Free
UC Berkeley
MIT Mini Cheetah

Photo: MIT

Yes, Boston Dynamics’ Spot, now available for lease, is probably the world’s most famous quadruped, but MIT is starting to pump out Mini Cheetahs en masse for researchers, and while we’re not exactly sure how you’d manage to get one of these things short of stealing one directly for MIT, a Mini Cheetah is our fantasy robotics gift this year. Mini Cheetah looks like a ton of fun—it’s portable, highly dynamic, super rugged, and easy to control. We want one!
Price N/A
MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab

For more tech gift ideas, see also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide. Continue reading

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#436207 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

COMPUTING
A Giant Superfast AI Chip Is Being Used to Find Better Cancer Drugs
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“Thus far, Cerebras’s computer has checked all the boxes. Thanks to its chip size—it is larger than an iPad and has 1.2 trillion transistors for making calculations—it isn’t necessary to hook multiple smaller processors together, which can slow down model training. In testing, it has already shrunk the training time of models from weeks to hours.”

MEDICINE
Humans Put Into Suspended Animation for First Time
Ian Sample | The Guardian
“The process involves rapidly cooling the brain to less than 10C by replacing the patient’s blood with ice-cold saline solution. Typically the solution is pumped directly into the aorta, the main artery that carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the body.”

DRONES
This Transforming Drone Can Be Fired Straight Out of a Cannon
James Vincent | The Verge
“Drones are incredibly useful machines in the air, but getting them up and flying can be tricky, especially in crowded, windy, or emergency scenarios when speed is a factor. But a group of researchers from Caltech university and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have come up with an elegant and oh-so-fun solution: fire the damn thing out of a cannon.”

ROBOTICS
Alphabet’s Dream of an ‘Everyday Robot’ Is Just Out of Reach
Tom Simonite | Wired
“Sorting trash was chosen as a convenient challenge to test the project’s approach to creating more capable robots. It’s using artificial intelligence software developed in collaboration with Google to make robots that learn complex tasks through on-the-job experience. The hope is to make robots less reliant on human coding for their skills, and capable of adapting quickly to complex new tasks and environments.”

ENVIRONMENT
The Electric Car Revolution May Take a Lot Longer Than Expected
James Temple | MIT Technology Review
“A new report from the MIT Energy Initiative warns that EVs may never reach the same sticker price so long as they rely on lithium-ion batteries, the energy storage technology that powers most of today’s consumer electronics. In fact, it’s likely to take another decade just to eliminate the difference in the lifetime costs between the vehicle categories, which factors in the higher fuel and maintenance expenses of standard cars and trucks.”

SPACE
How Two Intruders From Interstellar Space Are Upending Astronomy
Alexandra Witze | Nature
“From the tallest peak in Hawaii to a high plateau in the Andes, some of the biggest telescopes on Earth will point towards a faint smudge of light over the next few weeks. …What they’re looking for is a rare visitor that is about to make its closest approach to the Sun. After that, they have just months to grab as much information as they can from the object before it disappears forever into the blackness of space.”

Image Credit: Simone Hutsch / Unsplash Continue reading

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#436021 AI Faces Speed Bumps and Potholes on Its ...

Implementing machine learning in the real world isn’t easy. The tools are available and the road is well-marked—but the speed bumps are many.

That was the conclusion of panelists wrapping up a day of discussions at the IEEE AI Symposium 2019, held at Cisco’s San Jose, Calif., campus last week.

The toughest problem, says Ben Irving, senior manager of Cisco’s strategy innovations group, is people.

It’s tough to find data scientist expertise, he indicated, so companies are looking into non-traditional sources of personnel, like political science. “There are some untapped areas with a lot of untapped data science expertise,” Irving says.

Lazard’s artificial intelligence manager Trevor Mottl agreed that would-be data scientists don’t need formal training or experience to break into the field. “This field is changing really rapidly,” he says. “There are new language models coming out every month, and new tools, so [anyone should] expect to not know everything. Experiment, try out new tools and techniques, read, study, spend time; there aren’t any true experts at this point because the foundational elements are shifting so rapidly.”

“It is a wonderful time to get into a field,” he reasons, noting that it doesn’t take long to catch up because there aren’t 20 years of history.”

Confusion about what different kinds of machine learning specialists do doesn’t help the personnel situation. An audience member asked panelists to explain the difference between data scientist, data analyst, and data engineer. Darrin Johnson, Nvidia global director of technical marketing for enterprise, admitted it’s hard to sort out, and any two companies could define the positions differently. “Sometimes,” he says, particularly at smaller companies, “a data scientist plays all three roles. But as companies grow, there are different groups that ingest data, clean data, and use data. At some companies, training and inference are separate. It really depends, which is a challenge when you are trying to hire someone.”

Mitigating the risks of a hot job market

The competition to hire data scientists, analysts, engineers, or whatever companies call them requires that managers make sure any work being done is structured and comprehensible at all times, the panelists cautioned.

“We need to remember that our data scientists go home every day and sometimes they don’t come back because they go home and then go to a different company,” says Lazard’s Mottl. “That’s a fact of life. If you give people choice on [how they do development], and have a successful person who gets poached by competitor, you have to either hire a team to unwrap what that person built or jettison their work and rebuild it.”

By contrast, he says, “places that have structured coding and structured commits and organized constructions of software have done very well.”

But keeping all of a company’s engineers working with the same languages and on the same development paths is not easy to do in a field that moves as fast as machine learning. Zongjie Diao, Cisco director of product management for machine learning, quipped: “I have a data scientist friend who says the speed at which he changes girlfriends is less than speed at which he changes languages.”

The data scientist/IT manager clash

Once a company finds the data engineers and scientists they need and get them started on the task of applying machine learning to that company’s operations, one of the first obstacles they face just might be the company’s IT department, the panelists suggested.

“IT is process oriented,” Mottl says. The IT team “knows how to keep data secure, to set up servers. But when you bring in a data science team, they want sandboxes, they want freedom, they want to explore and play.”

Also, Nvidia’s Johnson pointed out, “There is a language barrier.” The AI world, he says, is very different from networking or storage, and data scientists find it hard to articulate their requirements to IT.

On the ground or in the cloud?

And then there is the decision of where exactly machine learning should happen—on site, or in the cloud? At Lazard, Mottl says, the deep learning engineers do their experimentation on premises; that’s their sandbox. “But when we deploy, we deploy in the cloud,” he says.

Nvidia, Johnson says, thinks the opposite approach is better. We see the cloud as “the sandbox,” he says. “So you can run as many experiments as possible, fail fast, and learn faster.”

For Cisco’s Irving, the “where” of machine learning depends on the confidentiality of the data.

Mottl, who says rolling machine learning technology into operation can hit resistance from all across the company, had one last word of caution for those aiming to implement AI:

Data scientists are building things that might change the ways other people in the organization work, like sales and even knowledge workers. [You need to] think about the internal stakeholders and prepare them, because the last thing you want to do is to create a valuable new thing that nobody likes and people take potshots against.

The AI Symposium was organized by the Silicon Valley chapters of the IEEE Young Professionals, the IEEE Consultants’ Network, and IEEE Women in Engineering and supported by Cisco. Continue reading

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#435676 Intel’s Neuromorphic System Hits 8 ...

At the DARPA Electronics Resurgence Initiative Summit today in Detroit, Intel plans to unveil an 8-million-neuron neuromorphic system comprising 64 Loihi research chips—codenamed Pohoiki Beach. Loihi chips are built with an architecture that more closely matches the way the brain works than do chips designed to do deep learning or other forms of AI. For the set of problems that such “spiking neural networks” are particularly good at, Loihi is about 1,000 times as fast as a CPU and 10,000 times as energy efficient. The new 64-Loihi system represents the equivalent of 8-million neurons, but that’s just a step to a 768-chip, 100-million-neuron system that the company plans for the end of 2019.

Intel and its research partners are just beginning to test what massive neural systems like Pohoiki Beach can do, but so far the evidence points to even greater performance and efficiency, says Mike Davies, director of neuromorphic research at Intel.

“We’re quickly accumulating results and data that there are definite benefits… mostly in the domain of efficiency. Virtually every one that we benchmark…we find significant gains in this architecture,” he says.

Going from a single-Loihi to 64 of them is more of a software issue than a hardware one. “We designed scalability into the Loihi chip from the beginning,” says Davies. “The chip has a hierarchical routing interface…which allows us to scale to up to 16,000 chips. So 64 is just the next step.”

Photo: Tim Herman/Intel Corporation

One of Intel’s Nahuku boards, each of which contains 8 to 32 Intel Loihi neuromorphic chips, shown here interfaced to an Intel Arria 10 FPGA development kit. Intel’s latest neuromorphic system, Pohoiki Beach, is made up of multiple Nahuku boards and contains 64 Loihi chips.

Finding algorithms that run well on an 8-million-neuron system and optimizing those algorithms in software is a considerable effort, he says. Still, the payoff could be huge. Neural networks that are more brain-like, such as Loihi, could be immune to some of the artificial intelligence’s—for lack of a better word—dumbness.

For example, today’s neural networks suffer from something called catastrophic forgetting. If you tried to teach a trained neural network to recognize something new—a new road sign, say—by simply exposing the network to the new input, it would disrupt the network so badly that it would become terrible at recognizing anything. To avoid this, you have to completely retrain the network from the ground up. (DARPA’s Lifelong Learning, or L2M, program is dedicated to solving this problem.)

(Here’s my favorite analogy: Say you coached a basketball team, and you raised the net by 30 centimeters while nobody was looking. The players would miss a bunch at first, but they’d figure things out quickly. If those players were like today’s neural networks, you’d have to pull them off the court and teach them the entire game over again—dribbling, passing, everything.)

Loihi can run networks that might be immune to catastrophic forgetting, meaning it learns a bit more like a human. In fact, there’s evidence through a research collaboration with Thomas Cleland’s group at Cornell University, that Loihi can achieve what’s called one-shot learning. That is, learning a new feature after being exposed to it only once. The Cornell group showed this by abstracting a model of the olfactory system so that it would run on Loihi. When exposed to a new virtual scent, the system not only didn't catastrophically forget everything else it had smelled, it learned to recognize the new scent just from the single exposure.

Loihi might also be able to run feature-extraction algorithms that are immune to the kinds of adversarial attacks that befuddle today’s image recognition systems. Traditional neural networks don’t really understand the features they’re extracting from an image in the way our brains do. “They can be fooled with simplistic attacks like changing individual pixels or adding a screen of noise that wouldn’t fool a human in any way,” Davies explains. But the sparse-coding algorithms Loihi can run work more like the human visual system and so wouldn’t fall for such shenanigans. (Disturbingly, humans are not completely immune to such attacks.)

Photo: Tim Herman/Intel Corporation

A close-up shot of Loihi, Intel’s neuromorphic research chip. Intel’s latest neuromorphic system, Pohoiki Beach, will be comprised of 64 of these Loihi chips.

Researchers have also been using Loihi to improve real-time control for robotic systems. For example, last week at the Telluride Neuromorphic Cognition Engineering Workshop—an event Davies called “summer camp for neuromorphics nerds”—researchers were hard at work using a Loihi-based system to control a foosball table. “It strikes people as crazy,” he says. “But it’s a nice illustration of neuromorphic technology. It’s fast, requires quick response, quick planning, and anticipation. These are what neuromorphic chips are good at.” Continue reading

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#435528 The Time for AI Is Now. Here’s Why

You hear a lot these days about the sheer transformative power of AI.

There’s pure intelligence: DeepMind’s algorithms readily beat humans at Go and StarCraft, and DeepStack triumphs over humans at no-limit hold’em poker. Often, these silicon brains generate gameplay strategies that don’t resemble anything from a human mind.

There’s astonishing speed: algorithms routinely surpass radiologists in diagnosing breast cancer, eye disease, and other ailments visible from medical imaging, essentially collapsing decades of expert training down to a few months.

Although AI’s silent touch is mainly felt today in the technological, financial, and health sectors, its impact across industries is rapidly spreading. At the Singularity University Global Summit in San Francisco this week Neil Jacobstein, Chair of AI and Robotics, painted a picture of a better AI-powered future for humanity that is already here.

Thanks to cloud-based cognitive platforms, sophisticated AI tools like deep learning are no longer relegated to academic labs. For startups looking to tackle humanity’s grand challenges, the tools to efficiently integrate AI into their missions are readily available. The progress of AI is massively accelerating—to the point you need help from AI to track its progress, joked Jacobstein.

Now is the time to consider how AI can impact your industry, and in the process, begin to envision a beneficial relationship with our machine coworkers. As Jacobstein stressed in his talk, the future of a brain-machine mindmeld is a collaborative intelligence that augments our own. “AI is reinventing the way we invent,” he said.

AI’s Rapid Revolution
Machine learning and other AI-based methods may seem academic and abstruse. But Jacobstein pointed out that there are already plenty of real-world AI application frameworks.

Their secret? Rather than coding from scratch, smaller companies—with big visions—are tapping into cloud-based solutions such as Google’s TensorFlow, Microsoft’s Azure, or Amazon’s AWS to kick off their AI journey. These platforms act as all-in-one solutions that not only clean and organize data, but also contain built-in security and drag-and-drop coding that allow anyone to experiment with complicated machine learning algorithms.

Google Cloud’s Anthos, for example, lets anyone migrate data from other servers—IBM Watson or AWS, for example—so users can leverage different computing platforms and algorithms to transform data into insights and solutions.

Rather than coding from scratch, it’s already possible to hop onto a platform and play around with it, said Jacobstein. That’s key: this democratization of AI is how anyone can begin exploring solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had, or those long thought improbable.

The acceleration is only continuing. Much of AI’s mind-bending pace is thanks to a massive infusion of funding. Microsoft recently injected $1 billion into OpenAI, the Elon Musk venture that engineers socially responsible artificial general intelligence (AGI).

The other revolution is in hardware, and Google, IBM, and NVIDIA—among others—are racing to manufacture computing chips tailored to machine learning.

Democratizing AI is like the birth of the printing press. Mechanical printing allowed anyone to become an author; today, an iPhone lets anyone film a movie masterpiece.

However, this diffusion of AI into the fabric of our lives means tech explorers need to bring skepticism to their AI solutions, giving them a dose of empathy, nuance, and humanity.

A Path Towards Ethical AI
The democratization of AI is a double-edged sword: as more people wield the technology’s power in real-world applications, problems embedded in deep learning threaten to disrupt those very judgment calls.

Much of the press on the dangers of AI focuses on superintelligence—AI that’s more adept at learning than humans—taking over the world, said Jacobstein. But the near-term threat, and far more insidious, is in humans misusing the technology.

Deepfakes, for example, allow AI rookies to paste one person’s head on a different body or put words into a person’s mouth. As the panel said, it pays to think of AI as a cybersecurity problem, one with currently shaky accountability and complexity, and one that fails at diversity and bias.

Take bias. Thanks to progress in natural language processing, Google Translate works nearly perfectly today, so much so that many consider the translation problem solved. Not true, the panel said. One famous example is how the algorithm translates gender-neutral terms like “doctor” into “he” and “nurse” into “she.”

These biases reflect our own, and it’s not just a data problem. To truly engineer objective AI systems, ones stripped of our society’s biases, we need to ask who is developing these systems, and consult those who will be impacted by the products. In addition to gender, racial bias is also rampant. For example, one recent report found that a supposedly objective crime-predicting system was trained on falsified data, resulting in outputs that further perpetuate corrupt police practices. Another study from Google just this month found that their hate speech detector more often labeled innocuous tweets from African-Americans as “obscene” compared to tweets from people of other ethnicities.

We often think of building AI as purely an engineering job, the panelists agreed. But similar to gene drives, germ-line genome editing, and other transformative—but dangerous—tools, AI needs to grow under the consultation of policymakers and other stakeholders. It pays to start young: educating newer generations on AI biases will mold malleable minds early, alerting them to the problem of bias and potentially mitigating risks.

As panelist Tess Posner from AI4ALL said, AI is rocket fuel for ambition. If young minds set out using the tools of AI to tackle their chosen problems, while fully aware of its inherent weaknesses, we can begin to build an AI-embedded future that is widely accessible and inclusive.

The bottom line: people who will be impacted by AI need to be in the room at the conception of an AI solution. People will be displaced by the new technology, and ethical AI has to consider how to mitigate human suffering during the transition. Just because AI looks like “magic fairy dust doesn’t mean that you’re home free,” the panelists said. You, the sentient human, bear the burden of being responsible for how you decide to approach the technology.

The time for AI is now. Let’s make it ethical.

Image Credit: GrAI / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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