Tag Archives: Digital

#435674 MIT Future of Work Report: We ...

Robots aren’t going to take everyone’s jobs, but technology has already reshaped the world of work in ways that are creating clear winners and losers. And it will continue to do so without intervention, says the first report of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future.

The supergroup of MIT academics was set up by MIT President Rafael Reif in early 2018 to investigate how emerging technologies will impact employment and devise strategies to steer developments in a positive direction. And the headline finding from their first publication is that it’s not the quantity of jobs we should be worried about, but the quality.

Widespread press reports of a looming “employment apocalypse” brought on by AI and automation are probably wide of the mark, according to the authors. Shrinking workforces as developed countries age and outstanding limitations in what machines can do mean we’re unlikely to have a shortage of jobs.

But while unemployment is historically low, recent decades have seen a polarization of the workforce as the number of both high- and low-skilled jobs have grown at the expense of the middle-skilled ones, driving growing income inequality and depriving the non-college-educated of viable careers.

This is at least partly attributable to the growth of digital technology and automation, the report notes, which are rendering obsolete many middle-skilled jobs based around routine work like assembly lines and administrative support.

That leaves workers to either pursue high-skilled jobs that require deep knowledge and creativity, or settle for low-paid jobs that rely on skills—like manual dexterity or interpersonal communication—that are still beyond machines, but generic to most humans and therefore not valued by employers. And the growth of emerging technology like AI and robotics is only likely to exacerbate the problem.

This isn’t the first report to note this trend. The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report noted how technology is causing a “hollowing out” of labor markets. But the MIT report goes further in saying that the cause isn’t simply technology, but the institutions and policies we’ve built around it.

The motivation for introducing new technology is broadly assumed to be to increase productivity, but the authors note a rarely-acknowledged fact: “Not all innovations that raise productivity displace workers, and not all innovations that displace workers substantially raise productivity.”

Examples of the former include computer-aided design software that makes engineers and architects more productive, while examples of the latter include self-service checkouts and automated customer support that replace human workers, often at the expense of a worse customer experience.

While the report notes that companies have increasingly adopted the language of technology augmenting labor, in reality this has only really benefited high-skilled workers. For lower-skilled jobs the motivation is primarily labor cost savings, which highlights the other major force shaping technology’s impact on employment: shareholder capitalism.

The authors note that up until the 1980s, increasing productivity resulted in wage growth across the economic spectrum, but since then average wage growth has failed to keep pace and gains have dramatically skewed towards the top earners.

The report shies away from directly linking this trend to the birth of Reaganomics (something others have been happy to do), but it notes that American veneration of the shareholder as the primary stakeholder in a business and tax policies that incentivize investment in capital rather than labor have exacerbated the negative impacts technology can have on employment.

That means the current focus on re-skilling workers to thrive in the new economy is a necessary, but not sufficient, solution to the disruptive impact technology is having on work, the authors say.

Alongside significant investment in education, fiscal policies need to be re-balanced away from subsidizing investment in physical capital and towards boosting investment in human capital, the authors write, and workers need to have a greater say in corporate decision-making.

The authors point to other developed economies where productivity growth, income growth, and equality haven’t become so disconnected thanks to investments in worker skills, social safety nets, and incentives to invest in human capital. Whether such a radical reshaping of US economic policy is achievable in today’s political climate remains to be seen, but the authors conclude with a call to arms.

“The failure of the US labor market to deliver broadly shared prosperity despite rising productivity is not an inevitable byproduct of current technologies or free markets,” they write. “We can and should do better.”

Image Credit: Simon Abrams / Unsplash/a> Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435646 Video Friday: Kiki Is a New Social Robot ...

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

DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge tunnel circuit takes place in just a few weeks, and we’ll be there!

[ DARPA SubT ]

Time lapse video of robotic arm on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover handily maneuvers 88-pounds (40 kilograms) worth of sensor-laden turret as it moves from a deployed to stowed configuration.

If you haven’t read our interview with Matt Robinson, now would be a great time, since he’s one of the folks at JPL who designed this arm.

[ Mars 2020 ]

Kiki is a small, white, stationary social robot with an evolving personality who promises to be your friend and costs $800 and is currently on Kickstarter.

The Kickstarter page is filled with the same type of overpromising that we’ve seen with other (now very dead) social robots: Kiki is “conscious,” “understands your feelings,” and “loves you back.” Oof. That said, we’re happy to see more startups trying to succeed in this space, which is certainly one of the toughest in consumer electronics, and hopefully they’ve been learning from the recent string of failures. And we have to say Kiki is a cute robot. Its overall design, especially the body mechanics and expressive face, look neat. And kudos to the team—the company was founded by two ex-Googlers, Mita Yun and Jitu Das—for including the “unedited prototype videos,” which help counterbalance the hype.

Another thing that Kiki has going for it is that everything runs on the robot itself. This simplifies privacy and means that the robot won’t partially die on you if the company behind it goes under, but also limits how clever the robot will be able to be. The Kickstarter campaign is already over a third funded, so…We’ll see.

[ Kickstarter ]

When your UAV isn’t enough UAV, so you put a UAV on your UAV.

[ CanberraUAV ]

ABB’s YuMi is testing ATMs because a human trying to do this task would go broke almost immediately.

[ ABB ]

DJI has a fancy new FPV system that features easy setup, digital HD streaming at up to 120 FPS, and <30ms latency.

If it looks expensive, that’s because it costs $930 with the remote included.

[ DJI ]

Honeybee Robotics has recently developed a regolith excavation and rock cleaning system for NASA JPL’s PUFFER rovers. This system, called POCCET (PUFFER-Oriented Compact Cleaning and Excavation Tool), uses compressed gas to perform all excavation and cleaning tasks. Weighing less than 300 grams with potential for further mass reduction, POCCET can be used not just on the Moon, but on other Solar System bodies such as asteroids, comets, and even Mars.

[ Honeybee Robotics ]

DJI’s 2019 RoboMaster tournament, which takes place this month in Shenzen, looks like it’ll be fun to watch, with a plenty of action and rules that are easy to understand.

[ RoboMaster ]

Robots and baked goods are an automatic Video Friday inclusion.

Wow I want a cupcake right now.

[ Soft Robotics ]

The ICRA 2019 Best Paper Award went to Michelle A. Lee at Stanford, for “Making Sense of Vision and Touch: Self-Supervised Learning of Multimodal Representations for Contact-Rich Tasks.”

The ICRA video is here, and you can find the paper at the link below.

[ Paper ] via [ RoboHub ]

Cobalt Robotics put out a bunch of marketing-y videos this week, but this one reasonably interesting, even if you’re familiar with what they’re doing over there.

[ Cobalt Robotics ]

RightHand Robotics launched RightPick2 with a gala event which looked like fun as long as you were really, really in to robots.

[ RightHand Robotics ]

Thanks Jeff!

This video presents a framework for whole-body control applied to the assistive robotic system EDAN. We show how the proposed method can be used for a task like open, pass through and close a door. Also, we show the efficiency of the whole-body coordination with controlling the end-effector with respect to a fixed reference. Additionally, showing how easy the system can be manually manoeuvred by direct interaction with the end-effector, without the need for an extra input device.

[ DLR ]

You’ll probably need to turn on auto-translated subtitles for most of this, but it’s worth it for the adorable little single-seat robotic car designed to help people get around airports.

[ ZMP ]

In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Gonzalo Rey from Moog about their fancy 3D printed integrated hydraulic actuators.

Gonzalo talks about how Moog got started with hydraulic control,taking part in the space program and early robotics development. He shares how Moog’s technology is used in fly-by-wire systems in aircraft and in flow control in deep space probes. They have even reached Mars.

[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435593 AI at the Speed of Light

Neural networks shine for solving tough problems such as facial and voice recognition, but conventional electronic versions are limited in speed and hungry for power. In theory, optics could beat digital electronic computers in the matrix calculations used in neural networks. However, optics had been limited by their inability to do some complex calculations that had required electronics. Now new experiments show that all-optical neural networks can tackle those problems.

The key attraction of neural networks is their massive interconnections among processors, comparable to the complex interconnections among neurons in the brain. This lets them perform many operations simultaneously, like the human brain does when looking at faces or listening to speech, making them more efficient for facial and voice recognition than traditional electronic computers that execute one instruction at a time.

Today's electronic neural networks have reached eight million neurons, but their future use in artificial intelligence may be limited by their high power usage and limited parallelism in connections. Optical connections through lenses are inherently parallel. The lens in your eye simultaneously focuses light from across your field of view onto the retina in the back of your eye, where an array of light-detecting nerve cells detects the light. Each cell then relays the signal it receives to neurons in the brain that process the visual signals to show us an image.

Glass lenses process optical signals by focusing light, which performs a complex mathematical operation called a Fourier transform that preserves the information in the original scene but rearranges is completely. One use of Fourier transforms is converting time variations in signal intensity into a plot of the frequencies present in the signal. The military used this trick in the 1950s to convert raw radar return signals recorded by an aircraft in flight into a three-dimensional image of the landscape viewed by the plane. Today that conversion is done electronically, but the vacuum-tube computers of the 1950s were not up to the task.

Development of neural networks for artificial intelligence started with electronics, but their AI applications have been limited by their slow processing and need for extensive computing resources. Some researchers have developed hybrid neural networks, in which optics perform simple linear operations, but electronics perform more complex nonlinear calculations. Now two groups have demonstrated simple all-optical neural networks that do all processing with light.

In May, Wolfram Pernice of the Institute of Physics at the University of Münster in Germany and colleagues reported testing an all-optical “neuron” in which signals change target materials between liquid and solid states, an effect that has been used for optical data storage. They demonstrated nonlinear processing, and produced output pulses like those from organic neurons. They then produced an integrated photonic circuit that incorporated four optical neurons operating at different wavelengths, each of which connected to 15 optical synapses. The photonic circuit contained more than 140 components and could recognize simple optical patterns. The group wrote that their device is scalable, and that the technology promises “access to the high speed and high bandwidth inherent to optical systems, thus enabling the direct processing of optical telecommunication and visual data.”

Now a group at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology reports in Optica that they have made an all-optical neural network based on a different process, electromagnetically induced transparency, in which incident light affects how atoms shift between quantum-mechanical energy levels. The process is nonlinear and can be triggered by very weak light signals, says Shengwang Du, a physics professor and coauthor of the paper.

In their demonstration, they illuminated rubidium-85 atoms cooled by lasers to about 10 microKelvin (10 microdegrees above absolute zero). Although the technique may seem unusually complex, Du said the system was the most accessible one in the lab that could produce the desired effects. “As a pure quantum atomic system [it] is ideal for this proof-of-principle experiment,” he says.

Next, they plan to scale up the demonstration using a hot atomic vapor center, which is less expensive, does not require time-consuming preparation of cold atoms, and can be integrated with photonic chips. Du says the major challenges are reducing cost of the nonlinear processing medium and increasing the scale of the all-optical neural network for more complex tasks.

“Their demonstration seems valid,” says Volker Sorger, an electrical engineer at George Washington University in Washington who was not involved in either demonstration. He says the all-optical approach is attractive because it offers very high parallelism, but the update rate is limited to about 100 hertz because of the liquid crystals used in their test, and he is not completely convinced their approach can be scaled error-free. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435589 Construction Robots Learn to Excavate by ...

Pavel Savkin remembers the first time he watched a robot imitate his movements. Minutes earlier, the engineer had finished “showing” the robotic excavator its new goal by directing its movements manually. Now, running on software Savkin helped design, the robot was reproducing his movements, gesture for gesture. “It was like there was something alive in there—but I knew it was me,” he said.

Savkin is the CTO of SE4, a robotics software project that styles itself the “driver” of a fleet of robots that will eventually build human colonies in space. For now, SE4 is focused on creating software that can help developers communicate with robots, rather than on building hardware of its own.
The Tokyo-based startup showed off an industrial arm from Universal Robots that was running SE4’s proprietary software at SIGGRAPH in July. SE4’s demonstration at the Los Angeles innovation conference drew the company’s largest audience yet. The robot, nicknamed Squeezie, stacked real blocks as directed by SE4 research engineer Nathan Quinn, who wore a VR headset and used handheld controls to “show” Squeezie what to do.

As Quinn manipulated blocks in a virtual 3D space, the software learned a set of ordered instructions to be carried out in the real world. That order is essential for remote operations, says Quinn. To build remotely, developers need a way to communicate instructions to robotic builders on location. In the age of digital construction and industrial robotics, giving a computer a blueprint for what to build is a well-explored art. But operating on a distant object—especially under conditions that humans haven’t experienced themselves—presents challenges that only real-time communication with operators can solve.

The problem is that, in an unpredictable setting, even simple tasks require not only instruction from an operator, but constant feedback from the changing environment. Five years ago, the Swedish fiber network provider umea.net (part of the private Umeå Energy utility) took advantage of the virtual reality boom to promote its high-speed connections with the help of a viral video titled “Living with Lag: An Oculus Rift Experiment.” The video is still circulated in VR and gaming circles.

In the experiment, volunteers donned headgear that replaced their real-time biological senses of sight and sound with camera and audio feeds of their surroundings—both set at a 3-second delay. Thus equipped, volunteers attempt to complete everyday tasks like playing ping-pong, dancing, cooking, and walking on a beach, with decidedly slapstick results.

At outer-orbit intervals, including SE4’s dream of construction projects on Mars, the limiting factor in communication speed is not an artificial delay, but the laws of physics. The shifting relative positions of Earth and Mars mean that communications between the planets—even at the speed of light—can take anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes.

A long-distance relationship

Imagine trying to manage a construction project from across an ocean without the benefit of intelligent workers: sending a ship to an unknown world with a construction crew and blueprints for a log cabin, and four months later receiving a letter back asking how to cut down a tree. The parallel problem in long-distance construction with robots, according to SE4 CEO Lochlainn Wilson, is that automation relies on predictability. “Every robot in an industrial setting today is expecting a controlled environment.”
Platforms for applying AR and VR systems to teach tasks to artificial intelligences, as SE4 does, are already proliferating in manufacturing, healthcare, and defense. But all of the related communications systems are bound by physics and, specifically, the speed of light.
The same fundamental limitation applies in space. “Our communications are light-based, whether they’re radio or optical,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, a planetary scientist and consultant for space startups. “If you’re going to Mars and you want to communicate with your robot or spacecraft there, you need to have it act semi- or mostly-independently so that it can operate without commands from Earth.”

Semantic control
That’s exactly what SE4 aims to do. By teaching robots to group micro-movements into logical units—like all the steps to building a tower of blocks—the Tokyo-based startup lets robots make simple relational judgments that would allow them to receive a full set of instruction modules at once and carry them out in order. This sidesteps the latency issue in real-time bilateral communications that could hamstring a project or at least make progress excruciatingly slow.
The key to the platform, says Wilson, is the team’s proprietary operating software, “Semantic Control.” Just as in linguistics and philosophy, “semantics” refers to meaning itself, and meaning is the key to a robot’s ability to make even the smallest decisions on its own. “A robot can scan its environment and give [raw data] to us, but it can’t necessarily identify the objects around it and what they mean,” says Wilson.

That’s where human intelligence comes in. As part of the demonstration phase, the human operator of an SE4-controlled machine “annotates” each object in the robot’s vicinity with meaning. By labeling objects in the VR space with useful information—like which objects are building material and which are rocks—the operator helps the robot make sense of its real 3D environment before the building begins.

Giving robots the tools to deal with a changing environment is an important step toward allowing the AI to be truly independent, but it’s only an initial step. “We’re not letting it do absolutely everything,” said Quinn. “Our robot is good at moving an object from point A to point B, but it doesn’t know the overall plan.” Wilson adds that delegating environmental awareness and raw mechanical power to separate agents is the optimal relationship for a mixed human-robot construction team; it “lets humans do what they’re good at, while robots do what they do best.”

This story was updated on 4 September 2019. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435520 These Are the Meta-Trends Shaping the ...

Life is pretty different now than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. It’s sort of exciting, and sort of scary. And hold onto your hat, because it’s going to keep changing—even faster than it already has been.

The good news is, maybe there won’t be too many big surprises, because the future will be shaped by trends that have already been set in motion. According to Singularity University co-founder and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, a lot of these trends are unstoppable—but they’re also pretty predictable.

At SU’s Global Summit, taking place this week in San Francisco, Diamandis outlined some of the meta-trends he believes are key to how we’ll live our lives and do business in the (not too distant) future.

Increasing Global Abundance
Resources are becoming more abundant all over the world, and fewer people are seeing their lives limited by scarcity. “It’s hard for us to realize this as we see crisis news, but what people have access to is more abundant than ever before,” Diamandis said. Products and services are becoming cheaper and thus available to more people, and having more resources then enables people to create more, thus producing even more resources—and so on.

Need evidence? The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty is currently lower than it’s ever been. The average human life expectancy is longer than it’s ever been. The costs of day-to-day needs like food, energy, transportation, and communications are on a downward trend.

Take energy. In most of the world, though its costs are decreasing, it’s still a fairly precious commodity; we turn off our lights and our air conditioners when we don’t need them (ideally, both to save money and to avoid wastefulness). But the cost of solar energy has plummeted, and the storage capacity of batteries is improving, and solar technology is steadily getting more efficient. Bids for new solar power plants in the past few years have broken each other’s records for lowest cost per kilowatt hour.

“We’re not far from a penny per kilowatt hour for energy from the sun,” Diamandis said. “And if you’ve got energy, you’ve got water.” Desalination, for one, will be much more widely feasible once the cost of the energy needed for it drops.

Knowledge is perhaps the most crucial resource that’s going from scarce to abundant. All the world’s knowledge is now at the fingertips of anyone who has a mobile phone and an internet connection—and the number of people connected is only going to grow. “Everyone is being connected at gigabit connection speeds, and this will be transformative,” Diamandis said. “We’re heading towards a world where anyone can know anything at any time.”

Increasing Capital Abundance
It’s not just goods, services, and knowledge that are becoming more plentiful. Money is, too—particularly money for business. “There’s more and more capital available to invest in companies,” Diamandis said. As a result, more people are getting the chance to bring their world-changing ideas to life.

Venture capital investments reached a new record of $130 billion in 2018, up from $84 billion in 2017—and that’s just in the US. Globally, VC funding grew 21 percent from 2017 to a total of $207 billion in 2018.

Through crowdfunding, any person in any part of the world can present their idea and ask for funding. That funding can come in the form of a loan, an equity investment, a reward, or an advanced purchase of the proposed product or service. “Crowdfunding means it doesn’t matter where you live, if you have a great idea you can get it funded by people from all over the world,” Diamandis said.

All this is making a difference; the number of unicorns—privately-held startups valued at over $1 billion—currently stands at an astounding 360.

One of the reasons why the world is getting better, Diamandis believes, is because entrepreneurs are trying more crazy ideas—not ideas that are reasonable or predictable or linear, but ideas that seem absurd at first, then eventually end up changing the world.

Everyone and Everything, Connected
As already noted, knowledge is becoming abundant thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones and wireless internet; everyone’s getting connected. In the next decade or sooner, connectivity will reach every person in the world. 5G is being tested and offered for the first time this year, and companies like Google, SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon are racing to develop global satellite internet constellations, whether by launching 12,000 satellites, as SpaceX’s Starlink is doing, or by floating giant balloons into the stratosphere like Google’s Project Loon.

“We’re about to reach a period of time in the next four to six years where we’re going from half the world’s people being connected to the whole world being connected,” Diamandis said. “What happens when 4.2 billion new minds come online? They’re all going to want to create, discover, consume, and invent.”

And it doesn’t stop at connecting people. Things are becoming more connected too. “By 2020 there will be over 20 billion connected devices and more than one trillion sensors,” Diamandis said. By 2030, those projections go up to 500 billion and 100 trillion. Think about it: there’s home devices like refrigerators, TVs, dishwashers, digital assistants, and even toasters. There’s city infrastructure, from stoplights to cameras to public transportation like buses or bike sharing. It’s all getting smart and connected.

Soon we’ll be adding autonomous cars to the mix, and an unimaginable glut of data to go with them. Every turn, every stop, every acceleration will be a data point. Some cars already collect over 25 gigabytes of data per hour, Diamandis said, and car data is projected to generate $750 billion of revenue by 2030.

“You’re going to start asking questions that were never askable before, because the data is now there to be mined,” he said.

Increasing Human Intelligence
Indeed, we’ll have data on everything we could possibly want data on. We’ll also soon have what Diamandis calls just-in-time education, where 5G combined with artificial intelligence and augmented reality will allow you to learn something in the moment you need it. “It’s not going and studying, it’s where your AR glasses show you how to do an emergency surgery, or fix something, or program something,” he said.

We’re also at the beginning of massive investments in research working towards connecting our brains to the cloud. “Right now, everything we think, feel, hear, or learn is confined in our synaptic connections,” Diamandis said. What will it look like when that’s no longer the case? Companies like Kernel, Neuralink, Open Water, Facebook, Google, and IBM are all investing billions of dollars into brain-machine interface research.

Increasing Human Longevity
One of the most important problems we’ll use our newfound intelligence to solve is that of our own health and mortality, making 100 years old the new 60—then eventually, 120 or 150.

“Our bodies were never evolved to live past age 30,” Diamandis said. “You’d go into puberty at age 13 and have a baby, and by the time you were 26 your baby was having a baby.”

Seeing how drastically our lifespans have changed over time makes you wonder what aging even is; is it natural, or is it a disease? Many companies are treating it as one, and using technologies like senolytics, CRISPR, and stem cell therapy to try to cure it. Scaffolds of human organs can now be 3D printed then populated with the recipient’s own stem cells so that their bodies won’t reject the transplant. Companies are testing small-molecule pharmaceuticals that can stop various forms of cancer.

“We don’t truly know what’s going on inside our bodies—but we can,” Diamandis said. “We’re going to be able to track our bodies and find disease at stage zero.”

Chins Up
The world is far from perfect—that’s not hard to see. What’s less obvious but just as true is that we’re living in an amazing time. More people are coming together, and they have more access to information, and that information moves faster, than ever before.

“I don’t think any of us understand how fast the world is changing,” Diamandis said. “Most people are fearful about the future. But we should be excited about the tools we now have to solve the world’s problems.”

Image Credit: spainter_vfx / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots