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Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.
Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.
Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.
It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.
That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.
But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.
It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.
And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.
In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.
It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.
Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.
And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).
How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.
Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.
But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.
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Today, over 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone with access to the world’s information and near-limitless learning resources.
Yet nearly 36 million adults in the US are constrained by low literacy skills, excluding them from professional opportunities, prospects of upward mobility, and full engagement with their children’s education.
And beyond its direct impact, low literacy rates affect us all. Improving literacy among adults is predicted to save $230 billion in national healthcare costs and could result in US labor productivity increases of up to 2.5 percent.
Across the board, exponential technologies are making demonetized learning tools, digital training platforms, and literacy solutions more accessible than ever before.
With rising automation and major paradigm shifts underway in the job market, these tools not only promise to make today’s workforce more versatile, but could play an invaluable role in breaking the poverty cycles often associated with low literacy.
Just three years ago, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation joined forces to tackle this intractable problem, launching a $7 million Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
Challenging teams to develop smartphone apps that significantly increase literacy skills among adult learners in just 12 months, the competition brought five prize teams to the fore, each targeting multiple demographics across the nation.
Now, after four years of research, prototyping, testing, and evaluation, XPRIZE has just this week announced two grand prize winners: Learning Upgrade and People ForWords.
In this blog, I’ll be exploring the nuts and bolts of our two winning teams and how exponential technologies are beginning to address rapidly shifting workforce demands.
Meeting 100 percent adult literacy rates
Retooling today’s workforce for tomorrow’s job market
Granting the gift of lifelong learning
Let’s dive in.
Adult Literacy XPRIZE
Emphasizing the importance of accessible mediums and scalability, the Adult Literacy XPRIZE called for teams to create mobile solutions that lower the barrier to entry, encourage persistence, develop relevant learning content, and can scale nationally.
Outperforming the competition in two key demographic groups in aggregate—native English speakers and English language learners—teams Learning Upgrade and People ForWords together claimed the prize.
To win, both organizations successfully generated the greatest gains between a pre- and post-test, administered one year apart to learners in a 12-month field test across Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia.
Prize money in hand, Learning Upgrade and People ForWords are now scaling up their solutions, each targeting a key demographic in America’s pursuit of adult literacy.
Based in San Diego, Learning Upgrade has developed an Android and iOS app that helps students learn English and math through video, songs, and gamification. Offering a total of 21 courses from kindergarten through adult education, Learning Upgrade touts a growing platform of over 900 lessons spanning English, reading, math, and even GED prep.
To further personalize each student’s learning, Learning Upgrade measures time-on-task and builds out formative performance assessments, granting teachers a quantified, real-time view of each student’s progress across both lessons and criteria.
Specialized in English reading skills, Dallas-based People ForWords offers a similarly delocalized model with its mobile game “Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis.” Based on an archaeological adventure storyline, the app features an immersive virtual environment.
Set in the Atlantis Library (now with a 3D rendering underway), Codex takes its students through narrative-peppered lessons covering everything from letter-sound practice to vocabulary reinforcement in a hidden object game.
But while both mobile apps have recruited initial piloting populations, the key to success is scale.
Using a similar incentive prize competition structure to drive recruitment, the second phase of the XPRIZE is a $1 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition. For 15 months, the competition will challenge organizations, communities, and individuals alike to onboard adult learners onto both prize-winning platforms and fellow finalist team apps, AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed.
Each awarded $125,000 for participation in the Communities Competition, AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed bring yet other nuanced advantages to the table.
While AmritaCREATE curates culturally appropriate e-content relevant to given life skills, Cell-Ed takes a learn-on-the-go approach, offering micro-lessons, on-demand essential skills training, and individualized coaching on any mobile device, no internet required.
Although all these cases target slightly different demographics and problem niches, they converge upon common phenomena: mobility, efficiency, life skill relevance, personalized learning, and practicability.
And what better to scale these benefits than AI and immersive virtual environments?
In the case of education’s growing mobility, 5G and the explosion of connectivity speeds will continue to drive a learn-anytime-anywhere education model, whereby adult users learn on the fly, untethered to web access or rigid time strictures.
As I’ve explored in a previous blog on AI-crowd collaboration, we might also see the rise of AI learning consultants responsible for processing data on how you learn.
Quantifying and analyzing your interaction with course modules, where you get stuck, where you thrive, and what tools cause you ease or frustration, each user’s AI trainer might then issue personalized recommendations based on crowd feedback.
Adding a human touch, each app’s hired teaching consultants would thereby be freed to track many more students’ progress at once, vetting AI-generated tips and adjustments, and offering life coaching along the way.
Lastly, virtual learning environments—and, one day, immersive VR—will facilitate both speed and retention, two of the most critical constraints as learners age.
As I often reference, people generally remember only 10 percent of what we see, 20 percent of what we hear, and 30 percent of what we read…. But over a staggering 90 percent of what we do or experience.
By introducing gamification, immersive testing activities, and visually rich sensory environments, adult literacy platforms have a winning chance at scalability, retention, and user persistence.
Exponential Tools: Training and Retooling a Dynamic Workforce
Beyond literacy, however, virtual and augmented reality have already begun disrupting the professional training market.
As projected by ABI Research, the enterprise VR training market is on track to exceed $6.3 billion in value by 2022.
Leading the charge, Walmart has already implemented VR across 200 Academy training centers, running over 45 modules and simulating everything from unusual customer requests to a Black Friday shopping rush.
Then in September of last year, Walmart committed to a 17,000-headset order of the Oculus Go to equip every US Supercenter, neighborhood market, and discount store with VR-based employee training.
In the engineering world, Bell Helicopter is using VR to massively expedite development and testing of its latest aircraft, FCX-001. Partnering with Sector 5 Digital and HTC VIVE, Bell found it could concentrate a typical six-year aircraft design process into the course of six months, turning physical mockups into CAD-designed virtual replicas.
But beyond the design process itself, Bell is now one of a slew of companies pioneering VR pilot tests and simulations with real-world accuracy. Seated in a true-to-life virtual cockpit, pilots have now tested countless iterations of the FCX-001 in virtual flight, drawing directly onto the 3D model and enacting aircraft modifications in real time.
And in an expansion of our virtual senses, several key players are already working on haptic feedback. In the case of VR flight, French company Go Touch VR is now partnering with software developer FlyInside on fingertip-mounted haptic tech for aviation.
Dramatically reducing time and trouble required for VR-testing pilots, they aim to give touch-based confirmation of every switch and dial activated on virtual flights, just as one would experience in a full-sized cockpit mockup. Replicating texture, stiffness, and even the sensation of holding an object, these piloted devices contain a suite of actuators to simulate everything from a light touch to higher-pressured contact, all controlled by gaze and finger movements.
When it comes to other high-risk simulations, virtual and augmented reality have barely scratched the surface.
Firefighters can now combat virtual wildfires with new platforms like FLAIM Trainer or TargetSolutions. And thanks to the expansion of medical AR/VR services like 3D4Medical or Echopixel, surgeons might soon perform operations on annotated organs and magnified incision sites, speeding up reaction times and vastly improving precision.
But perhaps most urgently, virtual reality will offer an immediate solution to today’s constant industry turnover and large-scale re-education demands.
VR educational facilities with exact replicas of anything from large industrial equipment to minute circuitry will soon give anyone a second chance at the 21st-century job market.
Want to become an electric, autonomous vehicle mechanic at age 44? Throw on a demonetized VR module and learn by doing, testing your prototype iterations at almost zero cost and with no risk of harming others.
Want to be a plasma physicist and play around with a virtual nuclear fusion reactor? Now you’ll be able to simulate results and test out different tweaks, logging Smart Educational Record credits in the process.
As tomorrow’s career model shifts from a “one-and-done graduate degree” to continuous lifelong education, professional VR-based re-education will allow for a continuous education loop, reducing the barrier to entry for anyone wanting to try their hand at a new industry.
Learn Anything, Anytime, at Any Age
As VR and artificial intelligence converge with demonetized mobile connectivity, we are finally witnessing an era in which no one will be left behind.
Whether in pursuit of fundamental life skills, professional training, linguistic competence, or specialized retooling, users of all ages, career paths, income brackets, and goals are now encouraged to be students, no longer condemned to stagnancy.
Traditional constraints need no longer prevent non-native speakers from gaining an equal foothold, or specialists from pivoting into new professions, or low-income parents from staking new career paths.
As exponential technologies drive democratized access, bolstering initiatives such as the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE are blazing the trail to make education a scalable priority for all.
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One of the most contentious debates in technology is around the question of automation and jobs. At issue is whether advances in automation, specifically with regards to artificial intelligence and robotics, will spell trouble for today’s workers. This debate is played out in the media daily, and passions run deep on both sides of the issue. In the past, however, automation has created jobs and increased real wages.
A widespread concern with the current scenario is that the workers most likely to be displaced by technology lack the skills needed to do the new jobs that same technology will create.
Let’s look at this concern in detail. Those who fear automation will hurt workers start by pointing out that there is a wide range of jobs, from low-pay, low-skill to high-pay, high-skill ones. This can be represented as follows:
They then point out that technology primarily creates high-paying jobs, like geneticists, as shown in the diagram below.
Meanwhile, technology destroys low-wage, low-skill jobs like those in fast food restaurants, as shown below:
Then, those who are worried about this dynamic often pose the question, “Do you really think a fast-food worker is going to become a geneticist?”
They worry that we are about to face a huge amount of systemic permanent unemployment, as the unskilled displaced workers are ill-equipped to do the jobs of tomorrow.
It is important to note that both sides of the debate are in agreement at this point. Unquestionably, technology destroys low-skilled, low-paying jobs while creating high-skilled, high-paying ones.
So, is that the end of the story? As a society are we destined to bifurcate into two groups, those who have training and earn high salaries in the new jobs, and those with less training who see their jobs vanishing to machines? Is this latter group forever locked out of economic plenty because they lack training?
The question, “Can a fast food worker become a geneticist?” is where the error comes in. Fast food workers don’t become geneticists. What happens is that a college biology professor becomes a geneticist. Then a high-school biology teacher gets the college job. Then the substitute teacher gets hired on full-time to fill the high school teaching job. All the way down.
The question is not whether those in the lowest-skilled jobs can do the high-skilled work. Instead the question is, “Can everyone do a job just a little harder than the job they have today?” If so, and I believe very deeply that this is the case, then every time technology creates a new job “at the top,” everyone gets a promotion.
This isn’t just an academic theory—it’s 200 years of economic history in the west. For 200 years, with the exception of the Great Depression, unemployment in the US has been between 2 percent and 13 percent. Always. Europe’s range is a bit wider, but not much.
If I took 200 years of unemployment rates and graphed them, and asked you to find where the assembly line took over manufacturing, or where steam power rapidly replaced animal power, or the lightning-fast adoption of electricity by industry, you wouldn’t be able to find those spots. They aren’t even blips in the unemployment record.
You don’t even have to look back as far as the assembly line to see this happening. It has happened non-stop for 200 years. Every fifty years, we lose about half of all jobs, and this has been pretty steady since 1800.
How is it that for 200 years we have lost half of all jobs every half century, but never has this process caused unemployment? Not only has it not caused unemployment, but during that time, we have had full employment against the backdrop of rising wages.
How can wages rise while half of all jobs are constantly being destroyed? Simple. Because new technology always increases worker productivity. It creates new jobs, like web designer and programmer, while destroying low-wage backbreaking work. When this happens, everyone along the way gets a better job.
Our current situation isn’t any different than the past. The nature of technology has always been to create high-skilled jobs and increase worker productivity. This is good news for everyone.
People often ask me what their children should study to make sure they have a job in the future. I usually say it doesn’t really matter. If I knew everything I know now and went back to the mid 1980s, what could I have taken in high school to make me better prepared for today? There is only one class, and it wasn’t computer science. It was typing. Who would have guessed?
The great skill is to be able to learn new things, and luckily, we all have that. In fact, that is our singular ability as a species. What I do in my day-to-day job consists largely of skills I have learned as the years have passed. In my experience, if you ask people at all job levels,“Would you like a little more challenging job to make a little more money?” almost everyone says yes.
That’s all it has taken for us to collectively get here today, and that’s all we need going forward.
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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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