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As we enter our third decade in the 21st century, it seems appropriate to reflect on the ways technology developed and note the breakthroughs that were achieved in the last 10 years.
The 2010s saw IBM’s Watson win a game of Jeopardy, ushering in mainstream awareness of machine learning, along with DeepMind’s AlphaGO becoming the world’s Go champion. It was the decade that industrial tools like drones, 3D printers, genetic sequencing, and virtual reality (VR) all became consumer products. And it was a decade in which some alarming trends related to surveillance, targeted misinformation, and deepfakes came online.
For better or worse, the past decade was a breathtaking era in human history in which the idea of exponential growth in information technologies powered by computation became a mainstream concept.
As I did last year for 2018 only, I’ve asked a collection of experts across the Singularity University faculty to help frame the biggest breakthroughs and moments that gave shape to the past 10 years. I asked them what, in their opinion, was the most important breakthrough in their respective fields over the past decade.
My own answer to this question, focused in the space of augmented and virtual reality, would be the stunning announcement in March of 2014 that Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion. Although VR technology had been around for a while, it was at this precise moment that VR arrived as a consumer technology platform. Facebook, largely fueled by the singular interest of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has funded the development of this industry, keeping alive the hope that consumer VR can become a sustainable business. In the meantime, VR has continued to grow in sophistication and usefulness, though it has yet to truly take off as a mainstream concept. That will hopefully be a development for the 2020s.
Below is a decade in review across the technology areas that are giving shape to our modern world, as described by the SU community of experts.
Dr. Tiffany Vora | Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Digital Biology and Medicine, Singularity University
In my mind, this decade of astounding breakthroughs in the life sciences and medicine rests on the achievement of the $1,000 human genome in 2016. More-than-exponentially falling costs of DNA sequencing have driven advances in medicine, agriculture, ecology, genome editing, synthetic biology, the battle against climate change, and our fundamental understanding of life and its breathtaking connections. The “digital” revolution in DNA constituted an important model for harnessing other types of biological information, from personalized bio data to massive datasets spanning populations and species.
Crucially, by aggressively driving down the cost of such analyses, researchers and entrepreneurs democratized access to the source code of life—with attendant financial, cultural, and ethical consequences. Exciting, but take heed: Veritas Genetics spearheaded a $600 genome in 2019, only to have to shutter USA operations due to a money trail tangled with the trade war with China. Stay tuned through the early 2020s to see the pricing of DNA sequencing fall even further … and to experience the many ways that cheaper, faster harvesting of biological data will enrich your daily life.
Alex Gladstein | Chief Strategy Officer, Human Rights Foundation
The past decade has seen Bitcoin go from just an idea on an obscure online message board to a global financial network carrying more than 100 billion dollars in value. And we’re just getting started. One recent defining moment in the cryptocurrency space has been a stunning trend underway in Venezuela, where today, the daily dollar-denominated value of Bitcoin traded now far exceeds the daily dollar-denominated value traded on the Caracas Stock Exchange. It’s just one country, but it’s a significant country, and a paradigm shift.
Governments and corporations are following Bitcoin’s success too, and are looking to launch their own digital currencies. China will launch its “DC/EP” project in the coming months, and Facebook is trying to kickstart its Libra project. There are technical and regulatory uncertainties for both, but one thing is for certain: the era of digital currency has arrived.
Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship
Pascal Finnette | Chair, Entrepreneurship and Open Innovation, Singularity University
For me, without a doubt, the most interesting and quite possibly ground-shifting development in the fields of entrepreneurship and corporate innovation in the last ten years is the rapid maturing of customer-driven product development frameworks such as Lean Startup, and its subsequent adoption by corporates for their own innovation purposes.
Tools and frameworks like the Business Model Canvas, agile (software) development and the aforementioned Lean Startup methodology fundamentally shifted the way we think and go about building products, services, and companies, with many of these tools bursting onto the startup scene in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
As these tools matured they found mass adoption not only in startups around the world, but incumbent companies who eagerly adopted them to increase their own innovation velocity and success.
Ramez Naam | Co-Chair, Energy and Environment, Singularity University
The 2010s were the decade that saw clean electricity, energy storage, and electric vehicles break through price and performance barriers around the world. Solar, wind, batteries, and EVs started this decade as technologies that had to be subsidized. That was the first phase of their existence. Now they’re entering their third, most disruptive phase, where shifting to clean energy and mobility is cheaper than continuing to use existing coal, gas, or oil infrastructure.
Consider that at the start of 2010, there was no place on earth where building new solar or wind was cheaper than building new coal or gas power generation. By 2015, in some of the sunniest and windiest places on earth, solar and wind had entered their second phase, where they were cost-competitive for new power. And then, in 2018 and 2019, we started to see the edge of the third phase, as building new solar and wind, in some parts of the world, was cheaper than operating existing coal or gas power plants.
Liz Specht, Ph. D | Associate Director of Science & Technology, The Good Food Institute
The arrival of mainstream plant-based meat is easily the food tech advance of the decade. Meat analogs have, of course, been around forever. But only in the last decade have companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods decided to cut animals out of the process and build no-compromise meat directly from plants.
Plant-based meat is already transforming the fast-food industry. For example, the introduction of the Impossible Whopper led Burger King to their most profitable quarter in many years. But the global food industry as a whole is shifting as well. Tyson, JBS, Nestle, Cargill, and many others are all embracing plant-based meat.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Jody Medich | CEO, Superhuman-x
The breakthrough moment for augmented and virtual reality came in 2013 when Palmer Lucky took apart an Android smartphone and added optic lenses to make the first version of the Oculus Rift. Prior to that moment, we struggled with miniaturizing the components needed to develop low-latency head-worn devices. But thanks to the smartphone race started in 2006 with the iPhone, we finally had a suite of sensors, chips, displays, and computing power small enough to put on the head.
What will the next 10 years bring? Look for AR/VR to explode in a big way. We are right on the cusp of that tipping point when the tech is finally “good enough” for our linear expectations. Given all it can do today, we can’t even picture what’s possible. Just as today we can’t function without our phones, by 2029 we’ll feel lost without some AR/VR product. It will be the way we interact with computing, smart objects, and AI. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, predicts it will replace all of today’s computing devices. I can’t wait.
Philosophy of Technology
Alix Rübsaam | Faculty Fellow, Singularity University, Philosophy of Technology/Ethics of AI
The last decade has seen a significant shift in our general attitude towards the algorithms that we now know dictate much of our surroundings. Looking back at the beginning of the decade, it seems we were blissfully unaware of how the data we freely and willingly surrendered would feed the algorithms that would come to shape every aspect of our daily lives: the news we consume, the products we purchase, the opinions we hold, etc.
If I were to isolate a single publication that contributed greatly to the shift in public discourse on algorithms, it would have to be Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction from 2016. It remains a comprehensive, readable, and highly informative insight into how algorithms dictate our finances, our jobs, where we go to school, or if we can get health insurance. Its publication represents a pivotal moment when the general public started to question whether we should be OK with outsourcing decision making to these opaque systems.
The ubiquity of ethical guidelines for AI and algorithms published just in the last year (perhaps most comprehensively by the AI Now Institute) fully demonstrates the shift in public opinion of this decade.
Ola Kowalewski | Faculty Fellow, Singularity University, Data Innovation
In the last decade we entered the era of internet and smartphone ubiquity. The number of internet users doubled, with nearly 60 percent of the global population connected online and now over 35 percent of the globe owns a smartphone. With billions of people in a state of constant connectedness and therefore in a state of constant surveillance, the companies that have built the tech infrastructure and information pipelines have dominated the global economy. This shift from tech companies being the underdogs to arguably the world’s major powers sets the landscape we enter for the next decade.
Global Grand Challenges
Darlene Damm | Vice Chair, Faculty, Global Grand Challenges, Singularity University
The biggest breakthrough over the last decade in social impact and technology is that the social impact sector switched from seeing technology as something problematic to avoid, to one of the most effective ways to create social change. We now see people using exponential technologies to solve all sorts of social challenges in areas ranging from disaster response to hunger to shelter.
The world’s leading social organizations, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, have launched their own venture funds and accelerators, and the United Nations recently declared that digitization is revolutionizing global development.
Raymond McCauley | Chair, Digital Biology, Singularity University, Co-Founder & Chief Architect, BioCurious; Principal, Exponential Biosciences
CRISPR is bringing about a revolution in genetic engineering. It’s obvious, and it’s huge. What may not be so obvious is the widespread adoption of genetic testing. And this may have an even longer-lasting effect. It’s used to test new babies, to solve medical mysteries, and to catch serial killers. Thanks to holiday ads from 23andMe and Ancestry.com, it’s everywhere. Testing your DNA is now a common over-the-counter product. People are using it to set their diet, to pick drugs, and even for dating (or at least picking healthy mates).
And we’re just in the early stages. Further down the line, doing large-scale studies on more people, with more data, will lead to the use of polygenic risk scores to help us rank our genetic potential for everything from getting cancer to being a genius. Can you imagine what it would be like for parents to pick new babies, GATTACA-style, to get the smartest kids? You don’t have to; it’s already happening.
Neil Jacobstein | Chair, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Singularity University
The convergence of exponentially improved computing power, the deep learning algorithm, and access to massive data resulted in a series of AI breakthroughs over the past decade. These included: vastly improved accuracy in identifying images, making self driving cars practical, beating several world champions in Go, and identifying gender, smoking status, and age from retinal fundus photographs.
Combined, these breakthroughs convinced researchers and investors that after 50+ years of research and development, AI was ready for prime-time applications. Now, virtually every field of human endeavor is being revolutionized by machine learning. We still have a long way to go to achieve human-level intelligence and beyond, but the pace of worldwide improvement is blistering.
Hod Lipson | Professor of Engineering and Data Science, Columbia University
The biggest moment in AI in the past decade (and in its entire history, in my humble opinion) was midnight, Pacific time, September 30, 2012: the moment when machines finally opened their eyes. It was the moment when deep learning took off, breaking stagnant decades of machine blindness, when AI couldn’t reliably tell apart even a cat from a dog. That seemingly trivial accomplishment—a task any one-year-old child can do—has had a ripple effect on AI applications from driverless cars to health diagnostics. And this is just the beginning of what is sure to be a Cambrian explosion of AI.
Divya Chander | Chair, Neuroscience, Singularity University
If the 2000s were the decade of brain mapping, then the 2010s were the decade of brain writing. Optogenetics, a technique for precisely mapping and controlling neurons and neural circuits using genetically-directed light, saw incredible growth in the 2010s.
Also in the last 10 years, neuromodulation, or the ability to rewire the brain using both invasive and non-invasive interfaces and energy, has exploded in use and form. For instance, the Braingate consortium showed us how electrode arrays implanted into the motor cortex could be used by paralyzed people to use their thoughts to direct a robotic arm. These technologies, alone or in combination with robotics, exoskeletons, and flexible, implantable, electronics also make possible a future of human augmentation.
Image Credit: Image by Jorge Guillen 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 →
Last month, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrapped up the installation of the Mars 2020 rover’s 2.1-meter-long robot arm. This is the most powerful arm ever installed on a Mars rover. Even though the Mars 2020 rover shares much of its design with Curiosity, the new arm was redesigned to be able to do much more complex science, drilling into rocks to collect samples that can be stored for later recovery.
JPL is well known for developing robots that do amazing work in incredibly distant and hostile environments. The Opportunity Mars rover, to name just one example, had a 90-day planned mission but remained operational for 5,498 days in a robot unfriendly place full of dust and wild temperature swings where even the most basic maintenance or repair is utterly impossible. (Its twin rover, Spirit, operated for 2,269 days.)
To learn more about the process behind designing robotic systems that are capable of feats like these, we talked with Matt Robinson, one of the engineers who designed the Mars 2020 rover’s new robot arm.
The Mars 2020 rover (which will be officially named through a public contest which opens this fall) is scheduled to launch in July of 2020, landing in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. The overall design is similar to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, named Curiosity, which has been exploring Gale Crater on Mars since August 2012, except Mars 2020 will be a bit bigger and capable of doing even more amazing science. It will outweigh Curiosity by about 150 kilograms, but it’s otherwise about the same size, and uses the same type of radioisotope thermoelectric generator for power. Upgraded aluminum wheels will be more durable than Curiosity’s wheels, which have suffered significant wear. Mars 2020 will land on Mars in the same way that Curiosity did, with a mildly insane descent to the surface from a rocket-powered hovering “skycrane.”
Last month, engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory install the main robotic arm on the Mars 2020 rover. Measuring 2.1 meters long, the arm will allow the rover to work as a human geologist would: by holding and using science tools with its turret.
Mars 2020 really steps it up when it comes to science. The most interesting new capability (besides serving as the base station for a highly experimental autonomous helicopter) is that the rover will be able to take surface samples of rock and soil, put them into tubes, seal the tubes up, and then cache the tubes on the surface for later retrieval (and potentially return to Earth for analysis). Collecting the samples is the job of a drill on the end of the robot arm that can be equipped with a variety of interchangeable bits, but the arm holds a number of other instruments as well. A “turret” can swap between the drill, a mineral identification sensor suite called SHERLOC, and an X-ray spectrometer and camera called PIXL. Fundamentally, most of Mars 2020’s science work is going to depend on the arm and the hardware that it carries, both in terms of close-up surface investigations and collecting samples for caching.
Matt Robinson is the Deputy Delivery Manager for the Sample Caching System on the Mars 2020 rover, which covers the robotic arm itself, the drill at the end of the arm, and the sample caching system within the body of the rover that manages the samples. Robinson has been at JPL since 2001, and he’s worked on the Mars Phoenix Lander mission as the robotic arm flight software developer and robotic arm test and operations engineer, as well as on Curiosity as the robotic arm test and operations lead engineer.
We spoke with Robinson about how the Mars 2020 arm was designed, and what it’s like to be building robots for exploring other planets.
IEEE Spectrum: How’d you end up working on robots at JPL?
Matt Robinson: When I was a grad student, my focus was on vision-based robotics research, so the kinds of things they do at JPL, or that we do at JPL now, were right within my wheelhouse. One of my advisors in grad school had a former student who was out here at JPL, so that’s how I made the contact. But I was very excited to come to JPL—as a young grad student working in robotics, space robotics was where it’s at.
For a robotics engineer, working in space is kind of the gold standard. You’re working in a challenging environment and you have to be prepared for any time of eventuality that may occur. And when you send your robot out to space, there’s no getting it back.
Once the rover arrives on Mars and you receive pictures back from it operating, there’s no greater feeling. You’ve built something that is now working 200+ million miles away. It’s an awesome experience! I have to pinch myself sometimes with the job I do. Working at JPL on space robotics is the holy grail for a roboticist.
What’s different about designing an arm for a rover that will operate on Mars?
We spent over five years designing, manufacturing, assembling, and testing the arm. Scientists have defined the high-level goals for what the mission has to do—acquire core samples and process them for return, carry science instruments on the arm to help determine what rocks to sample, and so on. We, as engineers, define the next level of requirements that support those goals.
When you’re building a robotic arm for another planet, you want to design something that is robust to the environment as well as robust from fault-protection standpoint. On Mars, we’re talking about an environment where the temperature can vary 100 degrees Celsius over the course of the day, so it’s very challenging thermally. With force sensing for instance, that’s a major problem. Force sensors aren’t typically designed to operate or even survive in temperature ranges that we’re talking about. So a lot of effort has to go into force sensor design and testing.
And then there’s a do-no-harm aspect—you’re sending this piece of hardware 200 million miles away, and you can’t get it back, so you want to make sure your hardware and software are robust and cannot do any harm to the system. It’s definitely a change in mindset from a terrestrial robot, where if you make a mistake, you can repair it.
“Once the rover arrives on Mars and you receive pictures back from it, there’s no greater feeling . . . I have to pinch myself sometimes with the job I do.”
—Matt Robinson, NASA JPL
How do you decide how much redundancy is enough?
That’s always a big question. It comes down to a couple of things, typically: mass and volume. You have a certain amount of mass that’s allocated to the robotic arm and we have a volume that it has to fit within, so those are often the drivers of the amount of redundancy that you can fit. We also have a lot of experience with sending arms to other planets, and at the beginning of projects, we establish a number of requirements that the design has to meet, and that’s where the redundancy is captured.
How much is the design of the arm driven by this need for redundancy, as opposed to trying to pack in all of the instrumentation that you want to have on there to do as much science as possible?
The requirements were driven by a couple of things. We knew roughly how big the instruments on the end of the arm were going to be, so the arm design is partially driven by that, because as the instruments get bigger and heavier, the arm has to get bigger and stronger. We have our coring drill at the end of the arm, and coring requires a certain level of force, so the arm has to be strong enough to do that. Those all became requirements that drove the design of the arm. On top of that, there was also that this arm also has to operate within the Martian environment, so you have things like the temperature changes and thermal expansion—you have to design for that as well. It’s a combination of both, really.
You were a test engineer for the arm used on the MSL rover. What did you learn from Spirit and Opportunity that informed the design of the arm on Curiosity?
Spirit and Opportunity did not have any force-sensing on the robotic arm. We had contact sensors that were good enough. Spirit and Opportunity’s arms were used to place instruments, that’s all it had to do, primarily. When you’re talking about actually acquiring samples, it’s not a matter of just placing the tool—you also have to apply forces to the environment. And once you start doing that, you really need a force sensor to protect you, and also to determine how much load to apply. So that was a big theme, a big difference between MSL and Spirit and Opportunity.
The size grew a lot too. If you look at Spirit and Opportunity, they’re the size of a riding lawnmower. Curiosity and the Mars 2020 rovers are the size of a small car. The Spirit and Opportunity arm was under a meter long, and the 2020 arm is twice that, and it has to apply forces that are much higher than the Spirit and Opportunity arm. From Curiosity to 2020, the payload of the arm grew by 50 percent, but the mass of the arm did not grow a whole lot, because our mass budget was kind of tight. We had to design an arm that was stronger, that had more capability, without adding more mass. That was a big challenge. We were fairly efficient on Curiosity, but on 2020, we sharpened the pencil even more.
Three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Front and center: Sojourner rover, which landed on Mars in 1997 as part of the Mars Pathfinder Project. Left: Mars Exploration Rover Project rover (Spirit and Opportunity), which landed on Mars in 2004. Right: Mars Science Laboratory rover (Curiosity), which landed on Mars in August 2012.
MSL used its arm to drill into rocks like Mars 2020 will—how has the experience of operating MSL on Mars changed your thinking on how to make that work?
On MSL, the force sensor was used primarily for fault protection, just to protect the arm from being overloaded. [When drilling] we used a stiffness model of the arm to apply the force. The force sensor was only used in case you overloaded, and that’s very different from doing active force control, where you’re actually using the force sensor in a control loop.
On Mars 2020, we’re taking it to the next step, using the force sensor to actually actively control the level of force, both for pushing on the ground and for doing bit exchange. That’s a key point because fault protection to prevent damage usually has larger error bars. When you’re trying to actually push on the environment to apply force, and you’re doing active force control, the force sensor has to be significantly more accurate.
So a big thing that we learned on MSL—it was the first time we’d actually flown a force sensor, and we learned a lot about how to design and test force sensors to be used on the surface of Mars.
How do you effectively test the Mars 2020 arm on Earth?
That’s a good question. The arm was designed to operate on either Earth or Mars. It’s strong enough to do both. We also have a stiffness model of the arm which includes allows us to compensate for differences in gravity. For testing, we make two copies of the robotic arm. We have our copy that we’re going to fly to Mars, which is what we call our flight model, and we have our engineering model. They’re effectively duplicates of each other. The engineering arm stays on earth, so even once we’ve sent the flight model to Mars, we can continue to test. And if something were to happen, if say a drill bit got stuck in the ground on Mars, we could try to replicate those conditions on Earth with our engineering model arm, and use that to test out different scenarios to overcome the problem.
How much autonomy will the arm have?
We have different models of autonomy. We have pretty high levels flight software and, for instance, we have a command that just says “dock,” that moves the arm does all the force control to the dock the arm with the carousel. For surface interaction, we have stereo cameras on the rover, and those cameras allow us to generate 3D terrain models. Using those 3D terrain models, scientists can select a target on that surface, and then we can position the arm on the target.
Scientists like to select the particular sample targets, because they have very specific types of rocks they’re looking for to sample from. On 2020, we’re providing the ability for the next level of autonomy for the rover to drive up to an area and at least do the initial surveying of that area, so the scientists can select the specific target. So the way that that would happen is, if there’s an area off in the distance that the scientists find potentially interesting, the rover will autonomously drive up to it, and deploy the arm and take all the pictures so that we can generate those 3D terrain models and then the next day the scientists can pick the specific target they want. It’s really cool.
JPL is famous for making robots that operate for far longer than NASA necessarily plans for. What’s it like designing hardware and software for a system that will (hopefully) become part of that legacy?
The way that I look at it is, when you’re building an arm that’s going to go to another planet, all the things that could go wrong… You have to build something that’s robust and that can survive all that. It’s not that we’re trying to overdesign arms so that they’ll end up lasting much, much longer, it’s that, given all the things that you can encounter within a fairly unknown environment, and the level of robustness of the design you have to apply, it just so happens we end up with designs that end up lasting a lot longer than they do. Which is great, but we’re not held to that, although we’re very excited when we see them last that long. Without any calibration, without any maintenance, exactly, it’s amazing. They show their wear over time, but they still operate, it’s super exciting, it’s very inspirational to see.
[ Mars 2020 Rover ] 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!):
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
RoboBusiness 2019 – October 1-3, 2019 – Santa Clara, CA, USA
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.
Team PLUTO (University of Pennsylvania, Ghost Robotics, and Exyn Technologies) put together this video giving us a robot’s-eye-view (or whatever they happen to be using for eyes) of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge tunnel circuits.
[ PLUTO ]
Zhifeng Huang has been improving his jet-stepping humanoid robot, which features new hardware and the ability to take larger and more complex steps.
This video reported the last progress of an ongoing project utilizing ducted-fan propulsion system to improve humanoid robot’s ability in stepping over large ditches. The landing point of the robot’s swing foot can be not only forward but also side direction. With keeping quasi-static balance, the robot was able to step over a ditch with 450mm in width (up to 97% of the robot’s leg’s length) in 3D stepping.
[ Paper ]
These underacuated hands from Matei Ciocarlie’s lab at Columbia are magically able to reconfigure themselves to grasp different object types with just one or two motors.
[ Paper ] via [ ROAM Lab ]
This is one reason we should pursue not “autonomous cars” but “fully autonomous cars” that never require humans to take over. We can’t be trusted.
During our early days as the Google self-driving car project, we invited some employees to test our vehicles on their commutes and weekend trips. What we were testing at the time was similar to the highway driver assist features that are now available on cars today, where the car takes over the boring parts of the driving, but if something outside its ability occurs, the driver has to take over immediately.
What we saw was that our testers put too much trust in that technology. They were doing things like texting, applying makeup, and even falling asleep that made it clear they would not be ready to take over driving if the vehicle asked them to. This is why we believe that nothing short of full autonomy will do.
[ Waymo ]
Buddy is a DIY and fetchingly minimalist social robot (of sorts) that will be coming to Kickstarter this month.
We have created a new arduino kit. His name is Buddy. He is a DIY social robot to serve as a replacement for Jibo, Cozmo, or any of the other bots that are no longer available. Fully 3D printed and supported he adds much more to our series of Arduino STEM robotics kits.
Buddy is able to look around and map his surroundings and react to changes within them. He can be surprised and he will always have a unique reaction to changes. The kit can be built very easily in less than an hour. It is even robust enough to take the abuse that kids can give it in a classroom.
[ Littlebots ]
The android Mindar, based on the Buddhist deity of mercy, preaches sermons at Kodaiji temple in Kyoto, and its human colleagues predict that with artificial intelligence it could one day acquire unlimited wisdom. Developed at a cost of almost $1 million (¥106 million) in a joint project between the Zen temple and robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, the robot teaches about compassion and the dangers of desire, anger and ego.
[ Japan Times ]
I’m not sure whether it’s the sound or what, but this thing scares me for some reason.
[ BIRL ]
This gripper uses magnets as a sort of adjustable spring for dynamic stiffness control, which seems pretty clever.
[ Buffalo ]
What a package of medicine sees while being flown by drone from a hospital to a remote clinic in the Dominican Republic. The drone flew 11 km horizontally and 800 meters vertically, and I can’t even imagine what it would take to make that drive.
[ WeRobotics ]
My first ride in a fully autonomous car was at Stanford in 2009. I vividly remember getting in the back seat of a descendant of Junior, and watching the steering wheel turn by itself as the car executed a perfect parking maneuver. Ten years later, it’s still fun to watch other people have that experience.
[ Waymo ]
Flirtey, the pioneer of the commercial drone delivery industry, has unveiled the much-anticipated first video of its next-generation delivery drone, the Flirtey Eagle. The aircraft designer and manufacturer also unveiled the Flirtey Portal, a sophisticated take off and landing platform that enables scalable store-to-door operations; and an autonomous software platform that enables drones to deliver safely to homes.
[ Flirtey ]
EPFL scientists are developing new approaches for improved control of robotic hands – in particular for amputees – that combines individual finger control and automation for improved grasping and manipulation. This interdisciplinary proof-of-concept between neuroengineering and robotics was successfully tested on three amputees and seven healthy subjects.
[ EPFL ]
This video is a few years old, but we’ll take any excuse to watch the majestic sage-grouse be majestic in all their majesticness.
[ UC Davis ]
I like the idea of a game of soccer (or, football to you weirdos in the rest of the world) where the ball has a mind of its own.
[ Sphero ]
Looks like the whole delivery glider idea is really taking off! Or, you know, not taking off.
Weird that they didn’t show the landing, because it sure looked like it was going to plow into the side of the hill at full speed.
[ Yates ] via [ sUAS News ]
This video is from a 2018 paper, but it’s not like we ever get tired of seeing quadrupeds do stuff, right?
[ MIT ]
Founder and Head of Product, Ian Bernstein, and Head of Engineering, Morgan Bell, have been involved in the Misty project for years and they have learned a thing or two about building robots. Hear how and why Misty evolved into a robot development platform, learn what some of the earliest prototypes did (and why they didn’t work for what we envision), and take a deep dive into the technology decisions that form the Misty II platform.
[ Misty Robotics ]
Lex Fridman interviews Vijay Kumar on the Artifiical Intelligence Podcast.
[ AI Podcast ]
This week’s CMU RI Seminar is from Ross Knepper at Cornell, on Formalizing Teamwork in Human-Robot Interaction.
Robots out in the world today work for people but not with people. Before robots can work closely with ordinary people as part of a human-robot team in a home or office setting, robots need the ability to acquire a new mix of functional and social skills. Working with people requires a shared understanding of the task, capabilities, intentions, and background knowledge. For robots to act jointly as part of a team with people, they must engage in collaborative planning, which involves forming a consensus through an exchange of information about goals, capabilities, and partial plans. Often, much of this information is conveyed through implicit communication. In this talk, I formalize components of teamwork involving collaboration, communication, and representation. I illustrate how these concepts interact in the application of social navigation, which I argue is a first-class example of teamwork. In this setting, participants must avoid collision by legibly conveying intended passing sides via nonverbal cues like path shape. A topological representation using the braid groups enables the robot to reason about a small enumerable set of passing outcomes. I show how implicit communication of topological group plans achieves rapid covergence to a group consensus, and how a robot in the group can deliberately influence the ultimate outcome to maximize joint performance, yielding pedestrian comfort with the robot.
[ CMU RI ]
In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Julien Bourgeois about Claytronics, a project from Carnegie Mellon and Intel to develop “programmable matter.”
Julien started out as a computer scientist. He was always interested in robotics privately but then had the opportunity to get into micro robots when his lab was merged into the FEMTO-ST Institute. He later worked with Seth Copen Goldstein at Carnegie Mellon on the Claytronics project.
Julien shows an enlarged mock-up of the small robots that make up programmable matter, catoms, and speaks about how they are designed. Currently he is working on a unit that is one centimeter in diameter and he shows us the very small CPU that goes into that model.
[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading →
As digital technologies facilitate the growth of both new and incumbent organizations, we have started to see the darker sides of the digital economy unravel. In recent years, many unethical business practices have been exposed, including the capture and use of consumers’ data, anticompetitive activities, and covert social experiments.
But what do young people who grew up with the internet think about this development? Our research with 400 digital natives—19- to 24-year-olds—shows that this generation, dubbed “GenTech,” may be the one to turn the digital revolution on its head. Our findings point to a frustration and disillusionment with the way organizations have accumulated real-time information about consumers without their knowledge and often without their explicit consent.
Many from GenTech now understand that their online lives are of commercial value to an array of organizations that use this insight for the targeting and personalization of products, services, and experiences.
This era of accumulation and commercialization of user data through real-time monitoring has been coined “surveillance capitalism” and signifies a new economic system.
A central pillar of the modern digital economy is our interaction with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms. We found that 47 percent of GenTech do not want AI technology to monitor their lifestyle, purchases, and financial situation in order to recommend them particular things to buy.
In fact, only 29 percent see this as a positive intervention. Instead, they wish to maintain a sense of autonomy in their decision making and have the opportunity to freely explore new products, services, and experiences.
As individuals living in the digital age, we constantly negotiate with technology to let go of or retain control. This pendulum-like effect reflects the ongoing battle between humans and technology.
My Life, My Data?
Our research also reveals that 54 percent of GenTech are very concerned about the access organizations have to their data, while only 19 percent were not worried. Despite the EU General Data Protection Regulation being introduced in May 2018, this is still a major concern, grounded in a belief that too much of their data is in the possession of a small group of global companies, including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Some 70 percent felt this way.
In recent weeks, both Facebook and Google have vowed to make privacy a top priority in the way they interact with users. Both companies have faced public outcry for their lack of openness and transparency when it comes to how they collect and store user data. It wasn’t long ago that a hidden microphone was found in one of Google’s home alarm products.
Google now plans to offer auto-deletion of users’ location history data, browsing, and app activity as well as extend its “incognito mode” to Google Maps and search. This will enable users to turn off tracking.
At Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is keen to reposition the platform as a “privacy focused communications platform” built on principles such as private interactions, encryption, safety, interoperability (communications across Facebook-owned apps and platforms), and secure data storage. This will be a tough turnaround for the company that is fundamentally dependent on turning user data into opportunities for highly individualized advertising.
Privacy and transparency are critically important themes for organizations today, both for those that have “grown up” online as well as the incumbents. While GenTech want organizations to be more transparent and responsible, 64 percent also believe that they cannot do much to keep their data private. Being tracked and monitored online by organizations is seen as part and parcel of being a digital consumer.
Despite these views, there is a growing revolt simmering under the surface. GenTech want to take ownership of their own data. They see this as a valuable commodity, which they should be given the opportunity to trade with organizations. Some 50 percent would willingly share their data with companies if they got something in return, for example a financial incentive.
Rewiring the Power Shift
GenTech are looking to enter into a transactional relationship with organizations. This reflects a significant change in attitudes from perceiving the free access to digital platforms as the “product” in itself (in exchange for user data), to now wishing to use that data to trade for explicit benefits.
This has created an opportunity for companies that seek to empower consumers and give them back control of their data. Several companies now offer consumers the opportunity to sell the data they are comfortable sharing or take part in research that they get paid for. More and more companies are joining this space, including People.io, Killi, and Ocean Protocol.
Sir Tim Berners Lee, the creator of the world wide web, has also been working on a way to shift the power from organizations and institutions back to citizens and consumers. The platform, Solid, offers users the opportunity to be in charge of where they store their data and who can access it. It is a form of re-decentralization.
The Solid POD (Personal Online Data storage) is a secure place on a hosted server or the individual’s own server. Users can grant apps access to their POD as a person’s data is stored centrally and not by an app developer or on an organization’s server. We see this as potentially being a way to let people take back control from technology and other companies.
GenTech have woken up to a reality where a life lived “plugged in” has significant consequences for their individual privacy and are starting to push back, questioning those organizations that have shown limited concern and continue to exercise exploitative practices.
It’s no wonder that we see these signs of revolt. GenTech is the generation with the most to lose. They face a life ahead intertwined with digital technology as part of their personal and private lives. With continued pressure on organizations to become more transparent, the time is now for young people to make their move.
Dr Mike Cooray, Professor of Practice, Hult International Business School and Dr Rikke Duus, Research Associate and Senior Teaching Fellow, UCL
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Image Credit: Ser Borakovskyy / Shutterstock.com Continue reading →