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Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a restaurant scene or a domestic setting, these robots perform any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with their shopping. Serve the customers at the restaurant.”
This is Robocup @ Home, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering the technology required reveals that they’re really not.
The Robot Butler Contest
Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are entire multi-million-dollar competitions just dedicated to developing robots that can grasp a range of objects—and then return it to you.
It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only developed in the 1970s.
Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced, sardonic JARVIS who’s already made your favorite dinner when you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.
Caring for the Elderly
Famously, Japan is one of the most robo-enthusiastic nations in the world; they are the nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several studies have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously considered as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.
Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple but programmable robot with a single arm; it can be remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients. HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating objects.
Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation, at roughly three times the rate of construction workers, due to the day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers with the heavy lifting.
The Home of the Future
The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and, in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the immensely complicated task of building a fully capable humanoid robot—a task that even Google’s skunk-works department gave up on, at least until recently.
It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the robots fail to perform basic tasks.
Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic task, like iRobot’s Roomba, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful domestic robot of all time by far.
The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive but expensive automated kitchen uses the world’s most dexterous hands to cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.
In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the earth.
Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot, and hope that one day it will form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role to play in the household.
The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a long time, to the extent that movies featuring smart homes out of control are already a cliché. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that, more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can break (NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is something else entirely.
That’s before you even get into the security vulnerabilities, which are all the more important when devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your children might sound like something a security-conscious parent would like: a smart watch that can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings, and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their parents is the stuff of nightmares.
Key to many of these problems is the lack of standardization for security protocols, and even the products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to work together on the same system.
It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?” is that it is gradually, painstakingly learning how to sort through groceries.
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In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.
Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.
When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.
Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.
The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”
The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.
The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.
By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.
“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”
There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.
In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.
“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.
“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”
Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.
The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Image Credit: Joran Booth, The Faboratory Continue reading
ALMA (“Articulated Locomotion and Manipulation”), a quadrupedal robotic framework, allows a cool robotic arm six degrees of dynamic locomotion (“movement”) while doing something else. Possible motions include walking, trotting, pacing and torso-posturing, simultaneously with other complex tasks, as well as … Continue reading