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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.
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.
UBTECH Jimu MeeBot 2
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.
iRobot Roomba s9+
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.
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.
DJI Mavic Mini
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.
LEGO Star Wars Droid Commander
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.
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)
Neato Botvac D4 Connected
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
MIT Mini Cheetah
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!
MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab
For more tech gift ideas, see also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide. Continue reading
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
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