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#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

#435824 A Q&A with Cruise’s head of AI, ...

In 2016, Cruise, an autonomous vehicle startup acquired by General Motors, had about 50 employees. At the beginning of 2019, the headcount at its San Francisco headquarters—mostly software engineers, mostly working on projects connected to machine learning and artificial intelligence—hit around 1000. Now that number is up to 1500, and by the end of this year it’s expected to reach about 2000, sprawling into a recently purchased building that had housed Dropbox. And that’s not counting the 200 or so tech workers that Cruise is aiming to install in a Seattle, Wash., satellite development center and a handful of others in Phoenix, Ariz., and Pasadena, Calif.

Cruise’s recent hires aren’t all engineers—it takes more than engineering talent to manage operations. And there are hundreds of so-called safety drivers that are required to sit in the 180 or so autonomous test vehicles whenever they roam the San Francisco streets. But that’s still a lot of AI experts to be hiring in a time of AI engineer shortages.

Hussein Mehanna, head of AI/ML at Cruise, says the company’s hiring efforts are on track, due to the appeal of the challenge of autonomous vehicles in drawing in AI experts from other fields. Mehanna himself joined Cruise in May from Google, where he was director of engineering at Google Cloud AI. Mehanna had been there about a year and a half, a relatively quick career stop after a short stint at Snap following four years working in machine learning at Facebook.

Mehanna has been immersed in AI and machine learning research since his graduate studies in speech recognition and natural language processing at the University of Cambridge. I sat down with Mehanna to talk about his career, the challenges of recruiting AI experts and autonomous vehicle development in general—and some of the challenges specific to San Francisco. We were joined by Michael Thomas, Cruise’s manager of AI/ML recruiting, who had also spent time recruiting AI engineers at Google and then Facebook.

IEEE Spectrum: When you were at Cambridge, did you think AI was going to take off like a rocket?

Mehanna: Did I imagine that AI was going to be as dominant and prevailing and sometimes hyped as it is now? No. I do recall in 2003 that my supervisor and I were wondering if neural networks could help at all in speech recognition. I remember my supervisor saying if anyone could figure out how use a neural net for speech he would give them a grant immediately. So he was on the right path. Now neural networks have dominated vision, speech, and language [processing]. But that boom started in 2012.

“In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, it actually had a negative sentiment about researchers, and then Facebook shifted”

I didn’t [expect it], but I certainly aimed for it when [I was at] Microsoft, where I deliberately pushed my career towards machine learning instead of big data, which was more popular at the time. And [I aimed for it] when I joined Facebook.

In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, or researchers. It actually had a negative sentiment about researchers. And then Facebook shifted to becoming one of the key places where PhD students wanted to do internships or join after they graduated. It was a mindset shift, they were [once] at a point in time where they thought what was needed for success wasn’t research, but now it’s different.

There was definitely an element of risk [in taking a machine learning career path], but I was very lucky, things developed very fast.

IEEE Spectrum: Is it getting harder or easier to find AI engineers to hire, given the reported shortages?

Mehanna: There is a mismatch [between job openings and qualified engineers], though it is hard to quantify it with numbers. There is good news as well: I see a lot more students diving deep into machine learning and data in their [undergraduate] computer science studies, so it’s not as bleak as it seems. But there is massive demand in the market.

Here at Cruise, demand for AI talent is just growing and growing. It might be is saturating or slowing down at other kinds of companies, though, [which] are leveraging more traditional applications—ad prediction, recommendations—that have been out there in the market for a while. These are more mature, better understood problems.

I believe autonomous vehicle technologies is the most difficult AI problem out there. The magnitude of the challenge of these problems is 1000 times more than other problems. They aren’t as well understood yet, and they require far deeper technology. And also the quality at which they are expected to operate is off the roof.

The autonomous vehicle problem is the engineering challenge of our generation. There’s a lot of code to write, and if we think we are going to hire armies of people to write it line by line, it’s not going to work. Machine learning can accelerate the process of generating the code, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have engineers; we actually need a lot more engineers.

Sometimes people worry that AI is taking jobs. It is taking some developer jobs, but it is actually generating other developer jobs as well, protecting developers from the mundane and helping them build software faster and faster.

IEEE Spectrum: Are you concerned that the demand for AI in industry is drawing out the people in academia who are needed to educate future engineers, that is, the “eating the seed corn” problem?

Mehanna: There are some negative examples in the industry, but that’s not our style. We are looking for collaborations with professors, we want to cultivate a very deep and respectful relationship with universities.

And there’s another angle to this: Universities require a thriving industry for them to thrive. It is going to be extremely beneficial for academia to have this flourishing industry in AI, because it attracts more students to academia. I think we are doing them a fantastic favor by building these career opportunities. This is not the same as in my early days, [when] people told me “don’t go to AI; go to networking, work in the mobile industry; mobile is flourishing.”

IEEE Spectrum: Where are you looking as you try to find a thousand or so engineers to hire this year?

Thomas: We look for people who want to use machine learning to solve problems. They can be in many different industries—in the financial markets, in social media, in advertising. The autonomous vehicle industry is in its infancy. You can compare it to mobile in the early days: When the iPhone first came out, everyone was looking for developers with mobile experience, but you weren’t going to find them unless you went to straight to Apple, [so you had to hire other kinds of engineers]. This is the same type of thing: it is so new that you aren’t going to find experts in this area, because we are all still learning.

“You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move…now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.”

Mehanna: Because autonomous vehicle technology is the new frontier for AI experts, [the number of] people with both AI and autonomous vehicle experience is quite limited. So we are acquiring AI experts wherever they are, and helping them grow into the autonomous vehicle area. You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move; even though there is a lot of great tech developed, there’s even more innovation ahead, so now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems or applications to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.

It feels like the Internet in 1980. It’s about to happen, but there are endless applications [to be developed over] the next few decades. Even if we can get a car to drive safely, there is the question of how can we tune the ride comfort, and then applying it all to different cities, different vehicles, different driving situations, and who knows to what other applications.

I can see how I can spend a lifetime career trying to solve this problem.

IEEE Spectrum: Why are you doing most of your development in San Francisco?

Mehanna: I think the best talent of the world is in Silicon Valley, and solving the autonomous vehicle problem is going to require the best of the best. It’s not just the engineering talent that is here, but [also] the entrepreneurial spirit. Solving the problem just as a technology is not going to be successful, you need to solve the product and the technology together. And the entrepreneurial spirit is one of the key reasons Cruise secured 7.5 billion in funding [besides GM, the company has a number of outside investors, including Honda, Softbank, and T. Rowe Price]. That [funding] is another reason Cruise is ahead of many others, because this problem requires deep resources.

“If you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.”

[And then there is the driving environment.] When I speak to my peers in the industry, they have a lot of respect for us, because the problems to solve in San Francisco technically are an order of magnitude harder. It is a tight environment, with a lot of pedestrians, and driving patterns that, let’s put it this way, are not necessarily the best in the nation. Which means we are seeing more problems ahead of our competitors, which gets us to better [software]. I think if you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.

A version of this post appears in the September 2019 print magazine as “AI Engineers: The Autonomous-Vehicle Industry Wants You.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435816 This Light-based Nervous System Helps ...

Last night, way past midnight, I stumbled onto my porch blindly grasping for my keys after a hellish day of international travel. Lights were low, I was half-asleep, yet my hand grabbed the keychain, found the lock, and opened the door.

If you’re rolling your eyes—yeah, it’s not exactly an epic feat for a human. Thanks to the intricate wiring between our brain and millions of sensors dotted on—and inside—our skin, we know exactly where our hand is in space and what it’s touching without needing visual confirmation. But this combined sense of the internal and the external is completely lost to robots, which generally rely on computer vision or surface mechanosensors to track their movements and their interaction with the outside world. It’s not always a winning strategy.

What if, instead, we could give robots an artificial nervous system?

This month, a team led by Dr. Rob Shepard at Cornell University did just that, with a seriously clever twist. Rather than mimicking the electric signals in our nervous system, his team turned to light. By embedding optical fibers inside a 3D printed stretchable material, the team engineered an “optical lace” that can detect changes in pressure less than a fraction of a pound, and pinpoint the location to a spot half the width of a tiny needle.

The invention isn’t just an artificial skin. Instead, the delicate fibers can be distributed both inside a robot and on its surface, giving it both a sense of tactile touch and—most importantly—an idea of its own body position in space. Optical lace isn’t a superficial coating of mechanical sensors; it’s an entire platform that may finally endow robots with nerve-like networks throughout the body.

Eventually, engineers hope to use this fleshy, washable material to coat the sharp, cold metal interior of current robots, transforming C-3PO more into the human-like hosts of Westworld. Robots with a “bodily” sense could act as better caretakers for the elderly, said Shepard, because they can assist fragile people without inadvertently bruising or otherwise harming them. The results were published in Science Robotics.

An Unconventional Marriage
The optical lace is especially creative because it marries two contrasting ideas: one biological-inspired, the other wholly alien.

The overarching idea for optical lace is based on the animal kingdom. Through sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and other senses, we’re able to interpret the outside world—something scientists call exteroception. Thanks to our nervous system, we perform these computations subconsciously, allowing us to constantly “perceive” what’s going on around us.

Our other perception is purely internal. Proprioception (sorry, it’s not called “inception” though it should be) is how we know where our body parts are in space without having to look at them, which lets us perform complex tasks when blind. Although less intuitive than exteroception, proprioception also relies on stretching and other deformations within the muscles and tendons and receptors under the skin, which generate electrical currents that shoot up into the brain for further interpretation.

In other words, in theory it’s possible to recreate both perceptions with a single information-carrying system.

Here’s where the alien factor comes in. Rather than using electrical properties, the team turned to light as their data carrier. They had good reason. “Compared with electricity, light carries information faster and with higher data densities,” the team explained. Light can also transmit in multiple directions simultaneously, and is less susceptible to electromagnetic interference. Although optical nervous systems don’t exist in the biological world, the team decided to improve on Mother Nature and give it a shot.

Optical Lace
The construction starts with engineering a “sheath” for the optical nerve fibers. The team first used an elastic polyurethane—a synthetic material used in foam cushioning, for example—to make a lattice structure filled with large pores, somewhat like a lattice pie crust. Thanks to rapid, high-resolution 3D printing, the scaffold can have different stiffness from top to bottom. To increase sensitivity to the outside world, the team made the top of the lattice soft and pliable, to better transfer force to mechanical sensors. In contrast, the “deeper” regions held their structure better, and kept their structure under pressure.

Now the fun part. The team next threaded stretchable “light guides” into the scaffold. These fibers transmit photons, and are illuminated with a blue LED light. One, the input light guide, ran horizontally across the soft top part of the scaffold. Others ran perpendicular to the input in a “U” shape, going from more surface regions to deeper ones. These are the output guides. The architecture loosely resembles the wiring in our skin and flesh.

Normally, the output guides are separated from the input by a small air gap. When pressed down, the input light fiber distorts slightly, and if the pressure is high enough, it contacts one of the output guides. This causes light from the input fiber to “leak” to the output one, so that it lights up—the stronger the pressure, the brighter the output.

“When the structure deforms, you have contact between the input line and the output lines, and the light jumps into these output loops in the structure, so you can tell where the contact is happening,” said study author Patricia Xu. “The intensity of this determines the intensity of the deformation itself.”

Double Perception
As a proof-of-concept for proprioception, the team made a cylindrical lace with one input and 12 output channels. They varied the stiffness of the scaffold along the cylinder, and by pressing down at different points, were able to calculate how much each part stretched and deformed—a prominent precursor to knowing where different regions of the structure are moving in space. It’s a very rudimentary sort of proprioception, but one that will become more sophisticated with increasing numbers of strategically-placed mechanosensors.

The test for exteroception was a whole lot stranger. Here, the team engineered another optical lace with 15 output channels and turned it into a squishy piano. When pressed down, an Arduino microcontroller translated light output signals into sound based on the position of each touch. The stronger the pressure, the louder the volume. While not a musical masterpiece, the demo proved their point: the optical lace faithfully reported the strength and location of each touch.

A More Efficient Robot
Although remarkably novel, the optical lace isn’t yet ready for prime time. One problem is scalability: because of light loss, the material is limited to a certain size. However, rather than coating an entire robot, it may help to add optical lace to body parts where perception is critical—for example, fingertips and hands.

The team sees plenty of potential to keep developing the artificial flesh. Depending on particular needs, both the light guides and scaffold can be modified for sensitivity, spatial resolution, and accuracy. Multiple optical fibers that measure for different aspects—pressure, pain, temperature—can potentially be embedded in the same region, giving robots a multitude of senses.

In this way, we hope to reduce the number of electronics and combine signals from multiple sensors without losing information, the authors said. By taking inspiration from biological networks, it may even be possible to use various inputs through an optical lace to control how the robot behaves, closing the loop from sensation to action.

Image Credit: Cornell Organic Robotics Lab. A flexible, porous lattice structure is threaded with stretchable optical fibers containing more than a dozen mechanosensors and attached to an LED light. When the lattice structure is pressed, the sensors pinpoint changes in the photon flow. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435806 Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot Dog ...

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

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

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

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

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

Gif: Bob O’Connor/Robots.ieee.org

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

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

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

Image: Boston Dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Bob O'Connor

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

How did Boston Dynamics test Spot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ Boston Dynamics ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435779 This Robot Ostrich Can Ride Around on ...

Proponents of legged robots say that they make sense because legs are often required to go where humans go. Proponents of wheeled robots say, “Yeah, that’s great but watch how fast and efficient my robot is, compared to yours.” Some robots try and take advantage of wheels and legs with hybrid designs like whegs or wheeled feet, but a simpler and more versatile solution is to do what humans do, and just take advantage of wheels when you need them.

We’ve seen a few experiments with this. The University of Michigan managed to convince Cassie to ride a Segway, with mostly positive (but occasionally quite negative) results. A Segway, and hoverboard-like systems, can provide wheeled mobility for legged robots over flat terrain, but they can’t handle things like stairs, which is kind of the whole point of having a robot with legs anyway.

Image: UC Berkeley

From left, a Segway, a hovercraft, and hovershoes, with complexity in terms of user control increasing from left to right.

At UC Berkeley’s Hybrid Robotics Lab, led by Koushil Sreenath, researchers have taken things a step further. They are teaching their Cassie bipedal robot (called Cassie Cal) to wheel around on a pair of hovershoes. Hovershoes are like hoverboards that have been chopped in half, resulting in a pair of motorized single-wheel skates. You balance on the skates, and control them by leaning forwards and backwards and left and right, which causes each skate to accelerate or decelerate in an attempt to keep itself upright. It’s not easy to get these things to work, even for a human, but by adding a sensor package to Cassie the UC Berkeley researchers have managed to get it to zip around campus fully autonomously.

Remember, Cassie is operating autonomously here—it’s performing vSLAM (with an Intel RealSense) and doing all of its own computation onboard in real time. Watching it jolt across that cracked sidewalk is particularly impressive, especially considering that it only has pitch control over its ankles and can’t roll its feet to maintain maximum contact with the hovershoes. But you can see the advantage that this particular platform offers to a robot like Cassie, including the ability to handle stairs. Stairs in one direction, anyway.

It’s a testament to the robustness of UC Berkeley’s controller that they were willing to let the robot operate untethered and outside, and it sounds like they’re thinking long-term about how legged robots on wheels would be real-world useful:

Our feedback control and autonomous system allow for swift movement through urban environments to aid in everything from food delivery to security and surveillance to search and rescue missions. This work can also help with transportation in large factories and warehouses.

For more details, we spoke with the UC Berkeley students (Shuxiao Chen, Jonathan Rogers, and Bike Zhang) via email.

IEEE Spectrum: How representative of Cassie’s real-world performance is what we see in the video? What happens when things go wrong?

Cassie’s real-world performance is similar to what we see in the video. Cassie can ride the hovershoes successfully all around the campus. Our current controller allows Cassie to robustly ride the hovershoes and rejects various perturbations. At present, one of the failure modes is when the hovershoe rolls to the side—this happens when it goes sideways down a step or encounters a large obstacle on one side of it, causing it to roll over. Under these circumstances, Cassie doesn’t have sufficient control authority (due to the thin narrow feet) to get the hovershoe back on its wheel.

The Hybrid Robotics Lab has been working on robots that walk over challenging terrain—how do wheeled platforms like hovershoes fit in with that?

Surprisingly, this research is related to our prior work on walking on discrete terrain. While locomotion using legs is efficient when traveling over rough and discrete terrain, wheeled locomotion is more efficient when traveling over flat continuous terrain. Enabling legged robots to ride on various micro-mobility platforms will offer multimodal locomotion capabilities, improving the efficiency of locomotion over various terrains.

Our current research furthers the locomotion ability for bipedal robots over continuous terrains by using a wheeled platform. In the long run, we would like to develop multi-modal locomotion strategies based on our current and prior work to allow legged robots to robustly and efficiently locomote in our daily life.

Photo: UC Berkeley

In their experiments, the UC Berkeley researchers say Cassie proved quite capable of riding the hovershoes over rough and uneven terrain, including going down stairs.

How long did it take to train Cassie to use the hovershoes? Are there any hovershoe skills that Cassie is better at than an average human?

We spent about eight months to develop our whole system, including a controller, a path planner, and a vision system. This involved developing mathematical models of Cassie and the hovershoes, setting up a dynamical simulation, figuring out how to interface and communicate with various sensors and Cassie, and doing several experiments to slowly improve performance. In contrast, a human with a good sense of balance needs a few hours to learn to use the hovershoes. A human who has never used skates or skis will probably need a longer time.

A human can easily turn in place on the hovershoes, while Cassie cannot do this motion currently due to our algorithm requiring a non-zero forward speed in order to turn. However, Cassie is much better at riding the hovershoes over rough and uneven terrain including riding the hovershoes down some stairs!

What would it take to make Cassie faster or more agile on the hovershoes?

While Cassie can currently move at a decent pace on the hovershoes and navigate obstacles, Cassie’s ability to avoid obstacles at rapid speeds is constrained by the sensing, the controller, and the onboard computation. To enable Cassie to dynamically weave around obstacles at high speeds exhibiting agile motions, we need to make progress on different fronts.

We need planners that take into account the entire dynamics of the Cassie-Hovershoe system and rapidly generate dynamically-feasible trajectories; we need controllers that tightly coordinate all the degrees-of-freedom of Cassie to dynamically move while balancing on the hovershoes; we need sensors that are robust to motion-blur artifacts caused due to fast turns; and we need onboard computation that can execute our algorithms at real-time speeds.

What are you working on next?

We are working on enabling more aggressive movements for Cassie on the hovershoes by fully exploiting Cassie’s dynamics. We are working on approaches that enable us to easily go beyond hovershoes to other challenging micro-mobility platforms. We are working on enabling Cassie to step onto and off from wheeled platforms such as hovershoes. We would like to create a future of multi-modal locomotion strategies for legged robots to enable them to efficiently help people in our daily life.

“Feedback Control for Autonomous Riding of Hovershoes by a Cassie Bipedal Robot,” by Shuxiao Chen, Jonathan Rogers, Bike Zhang, and Koushil Sreenath from the Hybrid Robotics Lab at UC Berkeley, has been submitted to IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters with option to be presented at the 2019 IEEE RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots