Tag Archives: emerging
In the decade ahead, waves of exponential technological advancements are stacking atop one another, eclipsing decades of breakthroughs in scale and impact.
Emerging from these waves are 20 “metatrends” likely to revolutionize entire industries (old and new), redefine tomorrow’s generation of businesses and contemporary challenges, and transform our livelihoods from the bottom up.
Among these metatrends are augmented human longevity, the surging smart economy, AI-human collaboration, urbanized cellular agriculture, and high-bandwidth brain-computer interfaces, just to name a few.
It is here that master entrepreneurs and their teams must see beyond the immediate implications of a given technology, capturing second-order, Google-sized business opportunities on the horizon.
Welcome to a new decade of runaway technological booms, historic watershed moments, and extraordinary abundance.
Let’s dive in.
20 Metatrends for the 2020s
(1) Continued increase in global abundance: The number of individuals in extreme poverty continues to drop, as the middle-income population continues to rise. This metatrend is driven by the convergence of high-bandwidth and low-cost communication, ubiquitous AI on the cloud, and growing access to AI-aided education and AI-driven healthcare. Everyday goods and services (finance, insurance, education, and entertainment) are being digitized and becoming fully demonetized, available to the rising billion on mobile devices.
(2) Global gigabit connectivity will connect everyone and everything, everywhere, at ultra-low cost: The deployment of both licensed and unlicensed 5G, plus the launch of a multitude of global satellite networks (OneWeb, Starlink, etc.), allow for ubiquitous, low-cost communications for everyone, everywhere, not to mention the connection of trillions of devices. And today’s skyrocketing connectivity is bringing online an additional three billion individuals, driving tens of trillions of dollars into the global economy. This metatrend is driven by the convergence of low-cost space launches, hardware advancements, 5G networks, artificial intelligence, materials science, and surging computing power.
(3) The average human healthspan will increase by 10+ years: A dozen game-changing biotech and pharmaceutical solutions (currently in Phase 1, 2, or 3 clinical trials) will reach consumers this decade, adding an additional decade to the human healthspan. Technologies include stem cell supply restoration, wnt pathway manipulation, senolytic medicines, a new generation of endo-vaccines, GDF-11, and supplementation of NMD/NAD+, among several others. And as machine learning continues to mature, AI is set to unleash countless new drug candidates, ready for clinical trials. This metatrend is driven by the convergence of genome sequencing, CRISPR technologies, AI, quantum computing, and cellular medicine.
(4) An age of capital abundance will see increasing access to capital everywhere: From 2016 – 2018 (and likely in 2019), humanity hit all-time highs in the global flow of seed capital, venture capital, and sovereign wealth fund investments. While this trend will witness some ups and downs in the wake of future recessions, it is expected to continue its overall upward trajectory. Capital abundance leads to the funding and testing of ‘crazy’ entrepreneurial ideas, which in turn accelerate innovation. Already, $300 billion in crowdfunding is anticipated by 2025, democratizing capital access for entrepreneurs worldwide. This metatrend is driven by the convergence of global connectivity, dematerialization, demonetization, and democratization.
(5) Augmented reality and the spatial web will achieve ubiquitous deployment: The combination of augmented reality (yielding Web 3.0, or the spatial web) and 5G networks (offering 100Mb/s – 10Gb/s connection speeds) will transform how we live our everyday lives, impacting every industry from retail and advertising to education and entertainment. Consumers will play, learn, and shop throughout the day in a newly intelligent, virtually overlaid world. This metatrend will be driven by the convergence of hardware advancements, 5G networks, artificial intelligence, materials science, and surging computing power.
(6) Everything is smart, embedded with intelligence: The price of specialized machine learning chips is dropping rapidly with a rise in global demand. Combined with the explosion of low-cost microscopic sensors and the deployment of high-bandwidth networks, we’re heading into a decade wherein every device becomes intelligent. Your child’s toy remembers her face and name. Your kids’ drone safely and diligently follows and videos all the children at the birthday party. Appliances respond to voice commands and anticipate your needs.
(7) AI will achieve human-level intelligence: As predicted by technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil, artificial intelligence will reach human-level performance this decade (by 2030). Through the 2020s, AI algorithms and machine learning tools will be increasingly made open source, available on the cloud, allowing any individual with an internet connection to supplement their cognitive ability, augment their problem-solving capacity, and build new ventures at a fraction of the current cost. This metatrend will be driven by the convergence of global high-bandwidth connectivity, neural networks, and cloud computing. Every industry, spanning industrial design, healthcare, education, and entertainment, will be impacted.
(8) AI-human collaboration will skyrocket across all professions: The rise of “AI as a Service” (AIaaS) platforms will enable humans to partner with AI in every aspect of their work, at every level, in every industry. AIs will become entrenched in everyday business operations, serving as cognitive collaborators to employees—supporting creative tasks, generating new ideas, and tackling previously unattainable innovations. In some fields, partnership with AI will even become a requirement. For example: in the future, making certain diagnoses without the consultation of AI may be deemed malpractice.
(9) Most individuals adapt a JARVIS-like “software shell” to improve their quality of life: As services like Alexa, Google Home, and Apple Homepod expand in functionality, such services will eventually travel beyond the home and become your cognitive prosthetic 24/7. Imagine a secure JARVIS-like software shell that you give permission to listen to all your conversations, read your email, monitor your blood chemistry, etc. With access to such data, these AI-enabled software shells will learn your preferences, anticipate your needs and behavior, shop for you, monitor your health, and help you problem-solve in support of your mid- and long-term goals.
(10) Globally abundant, cheap renewable energy: Continued advancements in solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, nuclear, and localized grids will drive humanity towards cheap, abundant, and ubiquitous renewable energy. The price per kilowatt-hour will drop below one cent per kilowatt-hour for renewables, just as storage drops below a mere three cents per kilowatt-hour, resulting in the majority displacement of fossil fuels globally. And as the world’s poorest countries are also the world’s sunniest, the democratization of both new and traditional storage technologies will grant energy abundance to those already bathed in sunlight.
(11) The insurance industry transforms from “recovery after risk” to “prevention of risk”: Today, fire insurance pays you after your house burns down; life insurance pays your next-of-kin after you die; and health insurance (which is really sick insurance) pays only after you get sick. This next decade, a new generation of insurance providers will leverage the convergence of machine learning, ubiquitous sensors, low-cost genome sequencing, and robotics to detect risk, prevent disaster, and guarantee safety before any costs are incurred.
(12) Autonomous vehicles and flying cars will redefine human travel (soon to be far faster and cheaper): Fully autonomous vehicles, car-as-a-service fleets, and aerial ride-sharing (flying cars) will be fully operational in most major metropolitan cities in the coming decade. The cost of transportation will plummet 3-4X, transforming real estate, finance, insurance, the materials economy, and urban planning. Where you live and work, and how you spend your time, will all be fundamentally reshaped by this future of human travel. Your kids and elderly parents will never drive. This metatrend will be driven by the convergence of machine learning, sensors, materials science, battery storage improvements, and ubiquitous gigabit connections.
(13) On-demand production and on-demand delivery will birth an “instant economy of things”: Urban dwellers will learn to expect “instant fulfillment” of their retail orders as drone and robotic last-mile delivery services carry products from local supply depots directly to your doorstep. Further riding the deployment of regional on-demand digital manufacturing (3D printing farms), individualized products can be obtained within hours, anywhere, anytime. This metatrend is driven by the convergence of networks, 3D printing, robotics, and artificial intelligence.
(14) Ability to sense and know anything, anytime, anywhere: We’re rapidly approaching the era wherein 100 billion sensors (the Internet of Everything) is monitoring and sensing (imaging, listening, measuring) every facet of our environments, all the time. Global imaging satellites, drones, autonomous car LIDARs, and forward-looking augmented reality (AR) headset cameras are all part of a global sensor matrix, together allowing us to know anything, anytime, anywhere. This metatrend is driven by the convergence of terrestrial, atmospheric and space-based sensors, vast data networks, and machine learning. In this future, it’s not “what you know,” but rather “the quality of the questions you ask” that will be most important.
(15) Disruption of advertising: As AI becomes increasingly embedded in everyday life, your custom AI will soon understand what you want better than you do. In turn, we will begin to both trust and rely upon our AIs to make most of our buying decisions, turning over shopping to AI-enabled personal assistants. Your AI might make purchases based upon your past desires, current shortages, conversations you’ve allowed your AI to listen to, or by tracking where your pupils focus on a virtual interface (i.e. what catches your attention). As a result, the advertising industry—which normally competes for your attention (whether at the Superbowl or through search engines)—will have a hard time influencing your AI. This metatrend is driven by the convergence of machine learning, sensors, augmented reality, and 5G/networks.
(16) Cellular agriculture moves from the lab into inner cities, providing high-quality protein that is cheaper and healthier: This next decade will witness the birth of the most ethical, nutritious, and environmentally sustainable protein production system devised by humankind. Stem cell-based ‘cellular agriculture’ will allow the production of beef, chicken, and fish anywhere, on-demand, with far higher nutritional content, and a vastly lower environmental footprint than traditional livestock options. This metatrend is enabled by the convergence of biotechnology, materials science, machine learning, and AgTech.
(17) High-bandwidth brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) will come online for public use: Technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that in the mid-2030s, we will begin connecting the human neocortex to the cloud. This next decade will see tremendous progress in that direction, first serving those with spinal cord injuries, whereby patients will regain both sensory capacity and motor control. Yet beyond assisting those with motor function loss, several BCI pioneers are now attempting to supplement their baseline cognitive abilities, a pursuit with the potential to increase their sensorium, memory, and even intelligence. This metatrend is fueled by the convergence of materials science, machine learning, and robotics.
(18) High-resolution VR will transform both retail and real estate shopping: High-resolution, lightweight virtual reality headsets will allow individuals at home to shop for everything from clothing to real estate from the convenience of their living room. Need a new outfit? Your AI knows your detailed body measurements and can whip up a fashion show featuring your avatar wearing the latest 20 designs on a runway. Want to see how your furniture might look inside a house you’re viewing online? No problem! Your AI can populate the property with your virtualized inventory and give you a guided tour. This metatrend is enabled by the convergence of: VR, machine learning, and high-bandwidth networks.
(19) Increased focus on sustainability and the environment: An increase in global environmental awareness and concern over global warming will drive companies to invest in sustainability, both from a necessity standpoint and for marketing purposes. Breakthroughs in materials science, enabled by AI, will allow companies to drive tremendous reductions in waste and environmental contamination. One company’s waste will become another company’s profit center. This metatrend is enabled by the convergence of materials science, artificial intelligence, and broadband networks.
(20) CRISPR and gene therapies will minimize disease: A vast range of infectious diseases, ranging from AIDS to Ebola, are now curable. In addition, gene-editing technologies continue to advance in precision and ease of use, allowing families to treat and ultimately cure hundreds of inheritable genetic diseases. This metatrend is driven by the convergence of various biotechnologies (CRISPR, gene therapy), genome sequencing, and artificial intelligence.
(1) A360 Executive Mastermind: If you’re an exponentially and abundance-minded entrepreneur who would like coaching directly from me, consider joining my Abundance 360 Mastermind, a highly selective community of 360 CEOs and entrepreneurs who I coach for 3 days every January in Beverly Hills, Ca. Through A360, I provide my members with context and clarity about how converging exponential technologies will transform every industry. I’m committed to running A360 for the course of an ongoing 25-year journey as a “countdown to the Singularity.”
If you’d like to learn more and consider joining our 2020 membership, apply here.
(2) Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve also created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital. Abundance-Digital is Singularity University’s ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs — those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.
(Both A360 and Abundance-Digital are part of Singularity University — your participation opens you to a global community.)
This article originally appeared on diamandis.com. Read the original article here.
Image Credit: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay Continue reading →
For most of history, technology was about atoms, the manipulation of physical stuff to extend humankind’s reach. But in the last five or six decades, atoms have partnered with bits, the elemental “particles” of the digital world as we know it today. As computing has advanced at the accelerating pace described by Moore’s Law, technological progress has become increasingly digitized.
SpaceX lands and reuses rockets and self-driving cars do away with drivers thanks to automation, sensors, and software. Businesses find and hire talent from anywhere in the world, and for better and worse, a notable fraction of the world learns and socializes online. From the sequencing of DNA to artificial intelligence and from 3D printing to robotics, more and more new technologies are moving at a digital pace and quickly emerging to reshape the world around us.
In 2019, stories charting the advances of some of these digital technologies consistently made headlines. Below is, what is at best, an incomplete list of some of the big stories that caught our eye this year. With so much happening, it’s likely we’ve missed some notable headlines and advances—as well as some of your personal favorites. In either instance, share your thoughts and candidates for the biggest stories and breakthroughs on Facebook and Twitter.
With that said, let’s dive straight into the year.
No technology garnered as much attention as AI in 2019. With good reason. Intelligent computer systems are transitioning from research labs to everyday life. Healthcare, weather forecasting, business process automation, traffic congestion—you name it, and machine learning algorithms are likely beginning to work on it. Yet, AI has also been hyped up and overmarketed, and the latest round of AI technology, deep learning, is likely only one piece of the AI puzzle.
This year, Open AI’s game-playing algorithms beat some of the world’s best Dota 2 players, DeepMind notched impressive wins in Starcraft, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Libratus “crushed” pros at six-player Texas Hold‘em.
Speaking of games, AI’s mastery of the incredibly complex game of Go prompted a former world champion to quit, stating that AI ‘”cannot be defeated.”
But it isn’t just fun and games. Practical, powerful applications that make the best of AI’s pattern recognition abilities are on the way. Insilico Medicine, for example, used machine learning to help discover and design a new drug in just 46 days, and DeepMind is focused on using AI to crack protein folding.
Of course, AI can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to deepfakes and fake news, for example, AI makes both easier to create and detect, and early in the year, OpenAI created and announced a powerful AI text generator but delayed releasing it for fear of malicious use.
Recognizing AI’s power for good and ill, the OECD, EU, World Economic Forum, and China all took a stab at defining an ethical framework for the development and deployment of AI.
Processors and chips kickstarted the digital boom and are still the bedrock of continued growth. While progress in traditional silicon-based chips continues, it’s slowing and getting more expensive. Some say we’re reaching the end of Moore’s Law. While that may be the case for traditional chips, specialized chips and entirely new kinds of computing are waiting in the wings.
In fall 2019, Google confirmed its quantum computer had achieved “quantum supremacy,” a term that means a quantum computer can perform a calculation a normal computer cannot. IBM pushed back on the claim, and it should be noted the calculation was highly specialized. But while it’s still early days, there does appear to be some real progress (and more to come).
Should quantum computing become truly practical, “the implications are staggering.” It could impact machine learning, medicine, chemistry, and materials science, just to name a few areas.
Specialized chips continue to take aim at machine learning—a giant new chip with over a trillion transistors, for example, may make machine learning algorithms significantly more efficient.
Cellular computers also saw advances in 2019 thanks to CRISPR. And the year witnessed the emergence of the first reprogrammable DNA computer and new chips inspired by the brain.
The development of hardware computing platforms is intrinsically linked to software. 2019 saw a continued move from big technology companies towards open sourcing (at least parts of) their software, potentially democratizing the use of advanced systems.
Increasing interconnectedness has, in many ways, defined the 21st century so far. Your phone is no longer just a phone. It’s access to the world’s population and accumulated knowledge—and it fits in your pocket. Pretty neat. This is all thanks to networks, which had some notable advances in 2019.
The biggest network development of the year may well be the arrival of the first 5G networks.
5G’s faster speeds promise advances across many emerging technologies.
Self-driving vehicles, for example, may become both smarter and safer thanks to 5G C-V2X networks. (Don’t worry with trying to remember that. If they catch on, they’ll hopefully get a better name.)
Wi-Fi may have heard the news and said “hold my beer,” as 2019 saw the introduction of Wi-Fi 6. Perhaps the most important upgrade, among others, is that Wi-Fi 6 ensures that the ever-growing number of network connected devices get higher data rates.
Networks also went to space in 2019, as SpaceX began launching its Starlink constellation of broadband satellites. In typical fashion, Elon Musk showed off the network’s ability to bounce data around the world by sending a Tweet.
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Forget Pokemon Go (unless you want to add me as a friend in the game—in which case don’t forget Pokemon Go). 2019 saw AR and VR advance, even as Magic Leap, the most hyped of the lot, struggled to live up to outsized expectations and sell headsets.
Mixed reality AR and VR technologies, along with the explosive growth of sensor-based data about the world around us, is creating a one-to-one “Mirror World” of our physical reality—a digital world you can overlay on our own or dive into immersively thanks to AR and VR.
Facebook launched Replica, for example, which is a photorealistic virtual twin of the real world that, among other things, will help train AIs to better navigate their physical surroundings.
Our other senses (beyond eyes) may also become part of the Mirror World through the use of peripherals like a newly developed synthetic skin that aim to bring a sense of touch to VR.
AR and VR equipment is also becoming cheaper—with more producers entering the space—and more user-friendly. Instead of a wired headset requiring an expensive gaming PC, the new Oculus Quest is a wireless, self-contained step toward the mainstream.
Niche uses also continue to gain traction, from Google Glass’s Enterprise edition to the growth of AR and VR in professional education—including on-the-job-training and roleplaying emotionally difficult work encounters, like firing an employee.
Digital Biology and Biotech
The digitization of biology is happening at an incredible rate. With wild new research coming to light every year and just about every tech giant pouring money into new solutions and startups, we’re likely to see amazing advances in 2020 added to those we saw in 2019.
None were, perhaps, more visible than the success of protein-rich, plant-based substitutes for various meats. This was the year Beyond Meat was the top IPO on the NASDAQ stock exchange and people stood in line for the plant-based Impossible Whopper and KFC’s Beyond Chicken.
In the healthcare space, a report about three people with HIV who became virus free thanks to a bone marrow transplants of stem cells caused a huge stir. The research is still in relatively early stages, and isn’t suitable for most people, but it does provides a glimmer of hope.
CRISPR technology, which almost deserves its own section, progressed by leaps and bounds. One tweak made CRISPR up to 50 times more accurate, while the latest new CRISPR-based system, CRISPR prime, was described as a “word processor” for gene editing.
Many areas of healthcare stand to gain from CRISPR. For instance, cancer treatment, were a first safety test showed ‘promising’ results.
CRISPR’s many potential uses, however, also include some weird/morally questionable areas, which was exemplified by one the year’s stranger CRISPR-related stories about a human-monkey hybrid embryo in China.
Incidentally, China could be poised to take the lead on CRISPR thanks to massive investments and research programs.
As a consequence of quick advances in gene editing, we are approaching a point where we will be able to design our own biology—but first we need to have a serious conversation as a society about the ethics of gene editing and what lines should be drawn.
3D printing has quietly been growing both market size and the objects the printers are capable of producing. While both are impressive, perhaps the biggest story of 2019 is their increased speed.
One example was a boat that was printed in just three days, which also set three new world records for 3D printing.
3D printing is also spreading in the construction industry. In Mexico, the technology is being used to construct 50 new homes with subsidized mortgages of just $20/month.
3D printers also took care of all parts of a 640 square-meter home in Dubai.
Generally speaking, the use of 3D printing to make parts for everything from rocket engines (even entire rockets) to trains to cars illustrates the sturdiness of the technology, anno 2019.
In healthcare, 3D printing is also advancing the cause of bio-printed organs and, in one example, was used to print vascularized parts of a human heart.
Living in Japan, I get to see Pepper, Aibo, and other robots on pretty much a daily basis. The novelty of that experience is spreading to other countries, and robots are becoming a more visible addition to both our professional and private lives.
We can’t talk about robots and 2019 without mentioning Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, which went on sale for the general public.
Meanwhile, Google, Boston Dynamics’ former owner, rebooted their robotics division with a more down-to-earth focus on everyday uses they hope to commercialize.
SoftBank’s Pepper robot is working as a concierge and receptionist in various countries. It is also being used as a home companion. Not satisfied, Pepper rounded off 2019 by heading to the gym—to coach runners.
Indeed, there’s a growing list of sports where robots perform as well—or better—than humans.
2019 also saw robots launch an assault on the kitchen, including the likes of Samsung’s robot chef, and invade the front yard, with iRobot’s Terra robotic lawnmower.
In the borderlands of robotics, full-body robotic exoskeletons got a bit more practical, as the (by all accounts) user-friendly, battery-powered Sarcos Robotics Guardian XO went commercial.
Self-driving cars did not—if you will forgive the play on words—stay quite on track during 2019. The fallout from Uber’s 2018 fatal crash marred part of the year, while some big players ratcheted back expectations on a quick shift to the driverless future. Still, self-driving cars, trucks, and other autonomous systems did make progress this year.
Winner of my unofficial award for best name in self-driving goes to Optimus Ride. The company also illustrates that self-driving may not be about creating a one-size-fits-all solution but catering to specific markets.
Self-driving trucks had a good year, with tests across many countries and states. One of the year’s odder stories was a self-driving truck traversing the US with a delivery of butter.
A step above the competition may be the future slogan (or perhaps not) of Boeing’s self-piloted air taxi that saw its maiden test flight in 2019. It joins a growing list of companies looking to create autonomous, flying passenger vehicles.
2019 was also the year where companies seemed to go all in on last-mile autonomous vehicles. Who wins that particular competition could well emerge during 2020.
Blockchain and Digital Currencies
Bitcoin continues to be the cryptocurrency equivalent of a rollercoaster, but the underlying blockchain technology is progressing more steadily. Together, they may turn parts of our financial systems cashless and digital—though how and when remains a slightly open question.
One indication of this was Facebook’s hugely controversial announcement of Libra, its proposed cryptocurrency. The company faced immediate pushback and saw a host of partners jump ship. Still, it brought the tech into mainstream conversations as never before and is putting the pressure on governments and central banks to explore their own digital currencies.
Deloitte’s in-depth survey of the state of blockchain highlighted how the technology has moved from fintech into just about any industry you can think of.
One of the biggest issues facing the spread of many digital currencies—Bitcoin in particular, you could argue—is how much energy it consumes to mine them. 2019 saw the emergence of several new digital currencies with a much smaller energy footprint.
2019 was also a year where we saw a new kind of digital currency, stablecoins, rise to prominence. As the name indicates, stablecoins are a group of digital currencies whose price fluctuations are more stable than the likes of Bitcoin.
In a geopolitical sense, 2019 was a year of China playing catch-up. Having initially banned blockchain, the country turned 180 degrees and announced that it was “quite close” to releasing a digital currency and a wave of blockchain-programs.
Renewable Energy and Energy Storage
While not every government on the planet seems to be a fan of renewable energy, it keeps on outperforming fossil fuel after fossil fuel in places well suited to it—even without support from some of said governments.
One of the reasons for renewable energy’s continued growth is that energy efficiency levels keep on improving.
As a result, an increased number of coal plants are being forced to close due to an inability to compete, and the UK went coal-free for a record two weeks.
We are also seeing more and more financial institutions refusing to fund fossil fuel projects. One such example is the European Investment Bank.
Renewable energy’s advance is tied at the hip to the rise of energy storage, which also had a breakout 2019, in part thanks to investments from the likes of Bill Gates.
The size and capabilities of energy storage also grew in 2019. The best illustration came from Australia were Tesla’s mega-battery proved that energy storage has reached a stage where it can prop up entire energy grids.
Image Credit: Mathew Schwartz / Unsplash Continue reading →
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 Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, Wash., USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.
There will be a Mini-Cheetah Workshop (sponsored by Naver Labs) a year from now at IROS 2020 in Las Vegas. Mini-Cheetahs for everyone!
That’s just a rendering, of course, but this isn’t:
[ MCW ]
I was like 95 percent sure that the Urban Circuit of the DARPA SubT Challenge was going to be in something very subway station-y. Oops!
In the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge, teams deploy autonomous ground and aerial systems to attempt to map, identify, and report artifacts along competition courses in underground environments. The artifacts represent items a first responder or service member may encounter in unknown underground sites. This video provides a preview of the Urban Circuit event location. The Urban Circuit is scheduled for February 18-27, 2020, at Satsop Business Park west of Olympia, Washington.
[ SubT ]
Researchers at SEAS and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a resilient RoboBee powered by soft artificial muscles that can crash into walls, fall onto the floor, and collide with other RoboBees without being damaged. It is the first microrobot powered by soft actuators to achieve controlled flight.
To solve the problem of power density, the researchers built upon the electrically-driven soft actuators developed in the lab of David Clarke, the Extended Tarr Family Professor of Materials. These soft actuators are made using dielectric elastomers, soft materials with good insulating properties, that deform when an electric field is applied. By improving the electrode conductivity, the researchers were able to operate the actuator at 500 Hertz, on par with the rigid actuators used previously in similar robots.
Next, the researchers aim to increase the efficiency of the soft-powered robot, which still lags far behind more traditional flying robots.
[ Harvard ]
We present a system for fast and robust handovers with a robot character, together with a user study investigating the effect of robot speed and reaction time on perceived interaction quality. The system can match and exceed human speeds and confirms that users prefer human-level timing.
In a 3×3 user study, we vary the speed of the robot and add variable sensorimotor delays. We evaluate the social perception of the robot using the Robot Social Attribute Scale (RoSAS). Inclusion of a small delay, mimicking the delay of the human sensorimotor system, leads to an improvement in perceived qualities over both no delay and long delay conditions. Specifically, with no delay the robot is perceived as more discomforting and with a long delay, it is perceived as less warm.
[ Disney Research ]
When cars are autonomous, they’re not going to be able to pump themselves full of gas. Or, more likely, electrons. Kuka has the solution.
[ Kuka ]
This looks like fun, right?
[ Robocoaster ]
NASA is leading the way in the use of On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing to enable large, persistent, upgradable, and maintainable spacecraft. This video was developed by the Advanced Concepts Lab (ACL) at NASA Langley Research Center.
[ NASA ]
The noisiest workshop by far at Humanoids last month (by far) was Musical Interactions With Humanoids, the end result of which was this:
[ Workshop ]
IROS is an IEEE event, and in furthering the IEEE mission to benefit humanity through technological innovation, IROS is doing a great job. But don’t take it from us – we are joined by IEEE President-Elect Professor Toshio Fukuda to find out a bit more about the impact events like IROS can have, as well as examine some of the issues around intelligent robotics and systems – from privacy to transparency of the systems at play.
[ IROS ]
Speaking of IROS, we hope you’ve been enjoying our coverage. We have already featured Harvard’s strange sea-urchin-inspired robot and a Japanese quadruped that can climb vertical ladders, with more stories to come over the next several weeks.
In the mean time, enjoy these 10 videos from the conference (as usual, we’re including the title, authors, and abstract for each—if you’d like more details about any of these projects, let us know and we’ll find out more for you).
“A Passive Closing, Tendon Driven, Adaptive Robot Hand for Ultra-Fast, Aerial Grasping and Perching,” by Andrew McLaren, Zak Fitzgerald, Geng Gao, and Minas Liarokapis from the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Current grasping methods for aerial vehicles are slow, inaccurate and they cannot adapt to any target object. Thus, they do not allow for on-the-fly, ultra-fast grasping. In this paper, we present a passive closing, adaptive robot hand design that offers ultra-fast, aerial grasping for a wide range of everyday objects. We investigate alternative uses of structural compliance for the development of simple, adaptive robot grippers and hands and we propose an appropriate quick release mechanism that facilitates an instantaneous grasping execution. The quick release mechanism is triggered by a simple distance sensor. The proposed hand utilizes only two actuators to control multiple degrees of freedom over three fingers and it retains the superior grasping capabilities of adaptive grasping mechanisms, even under significant object pose or other environmental uncertainties. The hand achieves a grasping time of 96 ms, a maximum grasping force of 56 N and it is able to secure objects of various shapes at high speeds. The proposed hand can serve as the end-effector of grasping capable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) platforms and it can offer perching capabilities, facilitating autonomous docking.
“Unstructured Terrain Navigation and Topographic Mapping With a Low-Cost Mobile Cuboid Robot,” by Andrew S. Morgan, Robert L. Baines, Hayley McClintock, and Brian Scassellati from Yale University, USA.
Current robotic terrain mapping techniques require expensive sensor suites to construct an environmental representation. In this work, we present a cube-shaped robot that can roll through unstructured terrain and construct a detailed topographic map of the surface that it traverses in real time with low computational and monetary expense. Our approach devolves many of the complexities of locomotion and mapping to passive mechanical features. Namely, rolling movement is achieved by sequentially inflating latex bladders that are located on four sides of the robot to destabilize and tip it. Sensing is achieved via arrays of fine plastic pins that passively conform to the geometry of underlying terrain, retracting into the cube. We developed a topography by shade algorithm to process images of the displaced pins to reconstruct terrain contours and elevation. We experimentally validated the efficacy of the proposed robot through object mapping and terrain locomotion tasks.
“Toward a Ballbot for Physically Leading People: A Human-Centered Approach,” by Zhongyu Li and Ralph Hollis from Carnegie Mellon University, USA.
This work presents a new human-centered method for indoor service robots to provide people with physical assistance and active guidance while traveling through congested and narrow spaces. As most previous work is robot-centered, this paper develops an end-to-end framework which includes a feedback path of the measured human positions. The framework combines a planning algorithm and a human-robot interaction module to guide the led person to a specified planned position. The approach is deployed on a person-size dynamically stable mobile robot, the CMU ballbot. Trials were conducted where the ballbot physically led a blindfolded person to safely navigate in a cluttered environment.
“Achievement of Online Agile Manipulation Task for Aerial Transformable Multilink Robot,” by Fan Shi, Moju Zhao, Tomoki Anzai, Keita Ito, Xiangyu Chen, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo, Japan.
Transformable aerial robots are favorable in aerial manipulation tasks for their flexible ability to change configuration during the flight. By assuming robot keeping in the mild motion, the previous researches sacrifice aerial agility to simplify the complex non-linear system into a single rigid body with a linear controller. In this paper, we present a framework towards agile swing motion for the transformable multi-links aerial robot. We introduce a computational-efficient non-linear model predictive controller and joints motion primitive frame-work to achieve agile transforming motions and validate with a novel robot named HYRURS-X. Finally, we implement our framework under a table tennis task to validate the online and agile performance.
“Small-Scale Compliant Dual Arm With Tail for Winged Aerial Robots,” by Alejandro Suarez, Manuel Perez, Guillermo Heredia, and Anibal Ollero from the University of Seville, Spain.
Winged aerial robots represent an evolution of aerial manipulation robots, replacing the multirotor vehicles by fixed or flapping wing platforms. The development of this morphology is motivated in terms of efficiency, endurance and safety in some inspection operations where multirotor platforms may not be suitable. This paper presents a first prototype of compliant dual arm as preliminary step towards the realization of a winged aerial robot capable of perching and manipulating with the wings folded. The dual arm provides 6 DOF (degrees of freedom) for end effector positioning in a human-like kinematic configuration, with a reach of 25 cm (half-scale w.r.t. the human arm), and 0.2 kg weight. The prototype is built with micro metal gear motors, measuring the joint angles and the deflection with small potentiometers. The paper covers the design, electronics, modeling and control of the arms. Experimental results in test-bench validate the developed prototype and its functionalities, including joint position and torque control, bimanual grasping, the dynamic equilibrium with the tail, and the generation of 3D maps with laser sensors attached at the arms.
“A Novel Small-Scale Turtle-inspired Amphibious Spherical Robot,” by Huiming Xing, Shuxiang Guo, Liwei Shi, Xihuan Hou, Yu Liu, Huikang Liu, Yao Hu, Debin Xia, and Zan Li from Beijing Institute of Technology, China.
This paper describes a novel small-scale turtle-inspired Amphibious Spherical Robot (ASRobot) to accomplish exploration tasks in the restricted environment, such as amphibious areas and narrow underwater cave. A Legged, Multi-Vectored Water-Jet Composite Propulsion Mechanism (LMVWCPM) is designed with four legs, one of which contains three connecting rod parts, one water-jet thruster and three joints driven by digital servos. Using this mechanism, the robot is able to walk like amphibious turtles on various terrains and swim flexibly in submarine environment. A simplified kinematic model is established to analyze crawling gaits. With simulation of the crawling gait, the driving torques of different joints contributed to the choice of servos and the size of links of legs. Then we also modeled the robot in water and proposed several underwater locomotion. In order to assess the performance of the proposed robot, a series of experiments were carried out in the lab pool and on flat ground using the prototype robot. Experiments results verified the effectiveness of LMVWCPM and the amphibious control approaches.
“Advanced Autonomy on a Low-Cost Educational Drone Platform,” by Luke Eller, Theo Guerin, Baichuan Huang, Garrett Warren, Sophie Yang, Josh Roy, and Stefanie Tellex from Brown University, USA.
PiDrone is a quadrotor platform created to accompany an introductory robotics course. Students build an autonomous flying robot from scratch and learn to program it through assignments and projects. Existing educational robots do not have significant autonomous capabilities, such as high-level planning and mapping. We present a hardware and software framework for an autonomous aerial robot, in which all software for autonomy can run onboard the drone, implemented in Python. We present an Unscented Kalman Filter (UKF) for accurate state estimation. Next, we present an implementation of Monte Carlo (MC) Localization and Fast-SLAM for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM). The performance of UKF, localization, and SLAM is tested and compared to ground truth, provided by a motion-capture system. Our evaluation demonstrates that our autonomous educational framework runs quickly and accurately on a Raspberry Pi in Python, making it ideal for use in educational settings.
“FlightGoggles: Photorealistic Sensor Simulation for Perception-driven Robotics using Photogrammetry and Virtual Reality,” by Winter Guerra, Ezra Tal, Varun Murali, Gilhyun Ryou and Sertac Karaman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.
FlightGoggles is a photorealistic sensor simulator for perception-driven robotic vehicles. The key contributions of FlightGoggles are twofold. First, FlightGoggles provides photorealistic exteroceptive sensor simulation using graphics assets generated with photogrammetry. Second, it provides the ability to combine (i) synthetic exteroceptive measurements generated in silico in real time and (ii) vehicle dynamics and proprioceptive measurements generated in motio by vehicle(s) in flight in a motion-capture facility. FlightGoggles is capable of simulating a virtual-reality environment around autonomous vehicle(s) in flight. While a vehicle is in flight in the FlightGoggles virtual reality environment, exteroceptive sensors are rendered synthetically in real time while all complex dynamics are generated organically through natural interactions of the vehicle. The FlightGoggles framework allows for researchers to accelerate development by circumventing the need to estimate complex and hard-to-model interactions such as aerodynamics, motor mechanics, battery electrochemistry, and behavior of other agents. The ability to perform vehicle-in-the-loop experiments with photorealistic exteroceptive sensor simulation facilitates novel research directions involving, e.g., fast and agile autonomous flight in obstacle-rich environments, safe human interaction, and flexible sensor selection. FlightGoggles has been utilized as the main test for selecting nine teams that will advance in the AlphaPilot autonomous drone racing challenge. We survey approaches and results from the top AlphaPilot teams, which may be of independent interest. FlightGoggles is distributed as open-source software along with the photorealistic graphics assets for several simulation environments, under the MIT license at http://flightgoggles.mit.edu.
“An Autonomous Quadrotor System for Robust High-Speed Flight Through Cluttered Environments Without GPS,” by Marc Rigter, Benjamin Morrell, Robert G. Reid, Gene B. Merewether, Theodore Tzanetos, Vinay Rajur, KC Wong, and Larry H. Matthies from University of Sydney, Australia; NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, USA; and Georgia Institute of Technology, USA.
Robust autonomous flight without GPS is key to many emerging drone applications, such as delivery, search and rescue, and warehouse inspection. These and other appli- cations require accurate trajectory tracking through cluttered static environments, where GPS can be unreliable, while high- speed, agile, flight can increase efficiency. We describe the hardware and software of a quadrotor system that meets these requirements with onboard processing: a custom 300 mm wide quadrotor that uses two wide-field-of-view cameras for visual- inertial motion tracking and relocalization to a prior map. Collision-free trajectories are planned offline and tracked online with a custom tracking controller. This controller includes compensation for drag and variability in propeller performance, enabling accurate trajectory tracking, even at high speeds where aerodynamic effects are significant. We describe a system identification approach that identifies quadrotor-specific parameters via maximum likelihood estimation from flight data. Results from flight experiments are presented, which 1) validate the system identification method, 2) show that our controller with aerodynamic compensation reduces tracking error by more than 50% in both horizontal flights at up to 8.5 m/s and vertical flights at up to 3.1 m/s compared to the state-of-the-art, and 3) demonstrate our system tracking complex, aggressive, trajectories.
“Morphing Structure for Changing Hydrodynamic Characteristics of a Soft Underwater Walking Robot,” by Michael Ishida, Dylan Drotman, Benjamin Shih, Mark Hermes, Mitul Luhar, and Michael T. Tolley from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and University of Southern California, USA.
Existing platforms for underwater exploration and inspection are often limited to traversing open water and must expend large amounts of energy to maintain a position in flow for long periods of time. Many benthic animals overcome these limitations using legged locomotion and have different hydrodynamic profiles dictated by different body morphologies. This work presents an underwater legged robot with soft legs and a soft inflatable morphing body that can change shape to influence its hydrodynamic characteristics. Flow over the morphing body separates behind the trailing edge of the inflated shape, so whether the protrusion is at the front, center, or back of the robot influences the amount of drag and lift. When the legged robot (2.87 N underwater weight) needs to remain stationary in flow, an asymmetrically inflated body resists sliding by reducing lift on the body by 40% (from 0.52 N to 0.31 N) at the highest flow rate tested while only increasing drag by 5.5% (from 1.75 N to 1.85 N). When the legged robot needs to walk with flow, a large inflated body is pushed along by the flow, causing the robot to walk 16% faster than it would with an uninflated body. The body shape significantly affects the ability of the robot to walk against flow as it is able to walk against 0.09 m/s flow with the uninflated body, but is pushed backwards with a large inflated body. We demonstrate that the robot can detect changes in flow velocity with a commercial force sensor and respond by morphing into a hydrodynamically preferable shape. Continue reading →
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 →
People surf it. Spiders crawl it. Gophers navigate it.
Now, a leading group of cognitive biologists and computer scientists want to make the tools of the Internet accessible to the rest of the animal kingdom.
Dubbed the Interspecies Internet, the project aims to provide intelligent animals such as elephants, dolphins, magpies, and great apes with a means to communicate among each other and with people online.
And through artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other digital technologies, researchers hope to crack the code of all the chirps, yips, growls, and whistles that underpin animal communication.
Oh, and musician Peter Gabriel is involved.
“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control,” the former Genesis frontman, dressed in his signature Nehru-style collar shirt and loose, open waistcoat, told IEEE Spectrum at the inaugural Interspecies Internet Workshop, held Monday in Cambridge, Mass. “This will be integral to changing our relationship with the natural world.”
The workshop was a long time in the making.
Eighteen years ago, Gabriel visited a primate research center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he jammed with two bonobos, a male named Kanzi and his half-sister Panbanisha. It was the first time either bonobo had sat at a piano before, and both displayed an exquisite sense of musical timing and melody.
Gabriel seemed to be speaking to the great apes through his synthesizer. It was a shock to the man who once sang “Shock the Monkey.”
“It blew me away,” he says.
Add in the bonobos’ ability to communicate by pointing to abstract symbols, Gabriel notes, and “you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and very blind not to notice language being used.”
Gabriel eventually teamed up with Internet protocol co-inventor Vint Cerf, cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss, and IoT pioneer Neil Gershenfeld to propose building an Interspecies Internet. Presented in a 2013 TED Talk as an “idea in progress,” the concept proved to be ahead of the technology.
“It wasn’t ready,” says Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “It needed to incubate.”
So, for the past six years, the architects of the Dolittlesque initiative embarked on two small pilot projects, one for dolphins and one for chimpanzees.
At her Hunter College lab in New York City, Reiss developed what she calls the D-Pad—a touchpad for dolphins.
Reiss had been trying for years to create an underwater touchscreen with which to probe the cognition and communication skills of bottlenose dolphins. But “it was a nightmare coming up with something that was dolphin-safe and would work,” she says.
Her first attempt emitted too much heat. A Wii-like system of gesture recognition proved too difficult to install in the dolphin tanks.
Eventually, she joined forces with Rockefeller University biophysicist Marcelo Magnasco and invented an optical detection system in which images and infrared sensors are projected through an underwater viewing window onto a glass panel, allowing the dolphins to play specially designed apps, including one dubbed Whack-a-Fish.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Gabriel worked with Alison Cronin, director of the ape rescue center Monkey World, to test the feasibility of using FaceTime with chimpanzees.
The chimps engaged with the technology, Cronin reported at this week’s workshop. However, our hominid cousins proved as adept at videotelephonic discourse as my three-year-old son is at video chatting with his grandparents—which is to say, there was a lot of pass-the-banana-through-the-screen and other silly games, and not much meaningful conversation.
“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control.”
The buggy, rudimentary attempt at interspecies online communication—what Cronin calls her “Max Headroom experiment”—shows that building the Interspecies Internet will not be as simple as giving out Skype-enabled tablets to smart animals.
“There are all sorts of problems with creating a human-centered experience for another animal,” says Gabriel Miller, director of research and development at the San Diego Zoo.
Miller has been working on animal-focused sensory tools such as an “Elephone” (for elephants) and a “Joybranch” (for birds), but it’s not easy to design efficient interactive systems for other creatures—and for the Interspecies Internet to be successful, Miller points out, “that will be super-foundational.”
Researchers are making progress on natural language processing of animal tongues. Through a non-profit organization called the Earth Species Project, former Firefox designer Aza Raskin and early Twitter engineer Britt Selvitelle are applying deep learning algorithms developed for unsupervised machine translation of human languages to fashion a Rosetta Stone–like tool capable of interpreting the vocalizations of whales, primates, and other animals.
Inspired by the scientists who first documented the complex sonic arrangements of humpback whales in the 1960s—a discovery that ushered in the modern marine conservation movement—Selvitelle hopes that an AI-powered animal translator can have a similar effect on environmentalism today.
“A lot of shifts happen when someone who doesn’t have a voice gains a voice,” he says.
A challenge with this sort of AI software remains verification and validation. Normally, machine-learning algorithms are benchmarked against a human expert, but who is to say if a cybernetic translation of a sperm whale’s clicks is accurate or not?
One could back-translate an English expression into sperm whale-ese and then into English again. But with the great apes, there might be a better option.
According to primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, expertly trained bonobos could serve as bilingual interpreters, translating the argot of apes into the parlance of people, and vice versa.
Not just any trained ape will do, though. They have to grow up in a mixed Pan/Homo environment, as Kanzi and Panbanisha were.
“If I can have a chat with a cow, maybe I can have more compassion for it.”
Those bonobos were raised effectively from birth both by Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught the animals to understand spoken English and to communicate via hundreds of different pictographic “lexigrams,” and a bonobo mother named Matata that had lived for six years in the Congolese rainforests before her capture.
Unlike all other research primates—which are brought into captivity as infants, reared by human caretakers, and have limited exposure to their natural cultures or languages—those apes thus grew up fluent in both bonobo and human.
Panbanisha died in 2012, but Kanzi, aged 38, is still going strong, living at an ape sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa. Researchers continue to study his cognitive abilities—Francine Dolins, a primatologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is running one study in which Kanzi and other apes hunt rabbits and forage for fruit through avatars on a touchscreen. Kanzi could, in theory, be recruited to check the accuracy of any Google Translate–like app for bonobo hoots, barks, grunts, and cries.
Alternatively, Kanzi could simply provide Internet-based interpreting services for our two species. He’s already proficient at video chatting with humans, notes Emily Walco, a PhD student at Harvard University who has personally Skyped with Kanzi. “He was super into it,” Walco says.
And if wild bonobos in Central Africa can be coaxed to gather around a computer screen, Savage-Rumbaugh is confident Kanzi could communicate with them that way. “It can all be put together,” she says. “We can have an Interspecies Internet.”
“Both the technology and the knowledge had to advance,” Savage-Rumbaugh notes. However, now, “the techniques that we learned could really be extended to a cow or a pig.”
That’s music to the ears of Jeremy Coller, a private equity specialist whose foundation partially funded the Interspecies Internet Workshop. Coller is passionate about animal welfare and has devoted much of his philanthropic efforts toward the goal of ending factory farming.
At the workshop, his foundation announced the creation of the Coller Doolittle Prize, a US $100,000 award to help fund further research related to the Interspecies Internet. (A working group also formed to synthesize plans for the emerging field, to facilitate future event planning, and to guide testing of shared technology platforms.)
Why would a multi-millionaire with no background in digital communication systems or cognitive psychology research want to back the initiative? For Coller, the motivation boils to interspecies empathy.
“If I can have a chat with a cow,” he says, “maybe I can have more compassion for it.”
An abridged version of this post appears in the September 2019 print issue as “Elephants, Dolphins, and Chimps Need the Internet, Too.” Continue reading →