Tag Archives: experience

#436100 Labrador Systems Developing Affordable ...

Developing robots for the home is still a challenge, especially if you want those robots to interact with people and help them do practical, useful things. However, the potential markets for home robots are huge, and one of the most compelling markets is for home robots that can assist humans who need them. Today, Labrador Systems, a startup based in California, is announcing a pre-seed funding round of $2 million (led by SOSV’s hardware accelerator HAX with participation from Amazon’s Alexa Fund and iRobot Ventures, among others) with the goal of expanding development and conducting pilot studies of “a new [assistive robot] platform for supporting home health.”

Labrador was founded two years ago by Mike Dooley and Nikolai Romanov. Both Mike and Nikolai have backgrounds in consumer robotics at Evolution Robotics and iRobot, but as an ’80s gamer, Mike’s bio (or at least the parts of his bio on LinkedIn) caught my attention: From 1995 to 1997, Mike worked at Brøderbund Software, helping to manage play testing for games like Myst and Riven and the Where in the World is Carmen San Diego series. He then spent three years at Lego as the product manager for MindStorms. After doing some marginally less interesting things, Mike was the VP of product development at Evolution Robotics from 2006 to 2012, where he led the team that developed the Mint floor sweeping robot. Evolution was acquired by iRobot in 2012, and Mike ended up as the VP of product development over there until 2017, when he co-founded Labrador.

I was pretty much sold at Where in the World is Carmen San Diego (the original version of which I played from a 5.25” floppy on my dad’s Apple IIe)*, but as you can see from all that other stuff, Mike knows what he’s doing in robotics as well.

And according to Labrador’s press release, what they’re doing is this:

Labrador Systems is an early stage technology company developing a new generation of assistive robots to help people live more independently. The company’s core focus is creating affordable solutions that address practical and physical needs at a fraction of the cost of commercial robots. … Labrador’s technology platform offers an affordable solution to improve the quality of care while promoting independence and successful aging.

Labrador’s personal robot, the company’s first offering, will enter pilot studies in 2020.

That’s about as light on detail as a press release gets, but there’s a bit more on Labrador’s website, including:

Our core focus is creating affordable solutions that address practical and physical needs. (we are not a social robot company)
By affordable, we mean products and technologies that will be available at less than 1/10th the cost of commercial robots.
We achieve those low costs by fusing the latest technologies coming out of augmented reality with robotics to move things in the real world.

The only hardware we’ve actually seen from Labrador at this point is a demo that they put together for Amazon’s re:MARS conference, which took place a few months ago, showing a “demonstration project” called Smart Walker:

This isn’t the home assistance robot that Labrador got its funding for, but rather a demonstration of some of their technology. So of course, the question is, what’s Labrador working on, then? It’s still a secret, but Mike Dooley was able to give us a few more details.

IEEE Spectrum: Your website shows a smart walker concept—how is that related to the assistive robot that you’re working on?

Mike Dooley: The smart walker was a request from a major senior living organization to have our robot (which is really good at navigation) guide residents from place to place within their communities. To test the idea with residents, it turned out to be much quicker to take the navigation system from the robot and put it on an existing rollator walker. So when you see the clips of the technology in the smart walker video on our website, that’s actually the robot’s navigation system localizing in real time and path planning in an environment.

“Assistive robot” can cover a huge range of designs and capabilities—can you give us any more detail about your robot, and what it’ll be able to do?

One of the core features of our robot is to help people move things where they have difficulty moving themselves, particularly in the home setting. That may sound trivial, but to someone who has impaired mobility, it can be a major daily challenge and negatively impact their life and health in a number of ways. Some examples we repeatedly hear are people not staying hydrated or taking their medication on time simply because there is a distance between where they are and the items they need. Once we have those base capabilities, i.e. the ability to navigate around a home and move things within it, then the robot becomes a platform for a wider variety of applications.

What made you decide to develop assistive robots, and why are robots a good solution for seniors who want to live independently?

Supporting independent living has been seen as a massive opportunity in robotics for some time, but also as something off in the future. The turning point for me was watching my mother enter that stage in her life and seeing her transition to using a cane, then a walker, and eventually to a wheelchair. That made the problems very real for me. It also made things much clearer about how we could start addressing specific needs with the tools that are becoming available now.

In terms of why robots can be a good solution, the basic answer is the level of need is so overwhelming that even helping with “basic” tasks can make an appreciable difference in the quality of someone’s daily life. It’s also very much about giving individuals a degree of control back over their environment. That applies to seniors as well as others whose world starts getting more complex to manage as their abilities become more impaired.

What are the particular challenges of developing assistive robots, and how are you addressing them? Why do you think there aren’t more robotics startups in this space?

The setting (operating in homes and personal spaces) and the core purpose of the product (aiding a wide variety of individuals) bring a lot of complexity to any capability you want to build into an assistive robot. Our approach is to put as much structure as we can into the system to make it functional, affordable, understandable and reliable.

I think one of the reasons you don’t see more startups in the space is that a lot of roboticists want to skip ahead and do the fancy stuff, such as taking on human-level capabilities around things like manipulation. Those are very interesting research topics, but we think those are also very far away from being practical solutions you can productize for people to use in their homes.

How do you think assistive robots and human caregivers should work together?

The ideal scenario is allowing caregivers to focus more of their time on the high-touch, personal side of care. The robot can offload the more basic support tasks as well as extend the impact of the caregiver for the long hours of the day they can’t be with someone at their home. We see that applying to both paid care providers as well as the 40 million unpaid family members and friends that provide assistance.

The robot is really there as a tool, both for individuals in need and the people that help them. What’s promising in the research discussions we’ve had so far, is that even when a caregiver is present, giving control back to the individual for simple things can mean a lot in the relationship between them and the caregiver.

What should we look forward to from Labrador in 2020?

Our big goal in 2020 is to start placing the next version of the robot with individuals with different types of needs to let them experience it naturally in their own homes and provide feedback on what they like, what don’t like and how we can make it better. We are currently reaching out to companies in the healthcare and home health fields to participate in those studies and test specific applications related to their services. We plan to share more detail about those studies and the robot itself as we get further into 2020.

If you’re an organization (or individual) who wants to possibly try out Labrador’s prototype, the company encourages you to connect with them through their website. And as we learn more about what Labrador is up to, we’ll have updates for you, presumably in 2020.

[ Labrador Systems ]

* I just lost an hour of my life after finding out that you can play Where in the World is Carmen San Diego in your browser for free. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436065 From Mainframes to PCs: What Robot ...

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

Posted in Human Robots

#436021 AI Faces Speed Bumps and Potholes on Its ...

Implementing machine learning in the real world isn’t easy. The tools are available and the road is well-marked—but the speed bumps are many.

That was the conclusion of panelists wrapping up a day of discussions at the IEEE AI Symposium 2019, held at Cisco’s San Jose, Calif., campus last week.

The toughest problem, says Ben Irving, senior manager of Cisco’s strategy innovations group, is people.

It’s tough to find data scientist expertise, he indicated, so companies are looking into non-traditional sources of personnel, like political science. “There are some untapped areas with a lot of untapped data science expertise,” Irving says.

Lazard’s artificial intelligence manager Trevor Mottl agreed that would-be data scientists don’t need formal training or experience to break into the field. “This field is changing really rapidly,” he says. “There are new language models coming out every month, and new tools, so [anyone should] expect to not know everything. Experiment, try out new tools and techniques, read, study, spend time; there aren’t any true experts at this point because the foundational elements are shifting so rapidly.”

“It is a wonderful time to get into a field,” he reasons, noting that it doesn’t take long to catch up because there aren’t 20 years of history.”

Confusion about what different kinds of machine learning specialists do doesn’t help the personnel situation. An audience member asked panelists to explain the difference between data scientist, data analyst, and data engineer. Darrin Johnson, Nvidia global director of technical marketing for enterprise, admitted it’s hard to sort out, and any two companies could define the positions differently. “Sometimes,” he says, particularly at smaller companies, “a data scientist plays all three roles. But as companies grow, there are different groups that ingest data, clean data, and use data. At some companies, training and inference are separate. It really depends, which is a challenge when you are trying to hire someone.”

Mitigating the risks of a hot job market

The competition to hire data scientists, analysts, engineers, or whatever companies call them requires that managers make sure any work being done is structured and comprehensible at all times, the panelists cautioned.

“We need to remember that our data scientists go home every day and sometimes they don’t come back because they go home and then go to a different company,” says Lazard’s Mottl. “That’s a fact of life. If you give people choice on [how they do development], and have a successful person who gets poached by competitor, you have to either hire a team to unwrap what that person built or jettison their work and rebuild it.”

By contrast, he says, “places that have structured coding and structured commits and organized constructions of software have done very well.”

But keeping all of a company’s engineers working with the same languages and on the same development paths is not easy to do in a field that moves as fast as machine learning. Zongjie Diao, Cisco director of product management for machine learning, quipped: “I have a data scientist friend who says the speed at which he changes girlfriends is less than speed at which he changes languages.”

The data scientist/IT manager clash

Once a company finds the data engineers and scientists they need and get them started on the task of applying machine learning to that company’s operations, one of the first obstacles they face just might be the company’s IT department, the panelists suggested.

“IT is process oriented,” Mottl says. The IT team “knows how to keep data secure, to set up servers. But when you bring in a data science team, they want sandboxes, they want freedom, they want to explore and play.”

Also, Nvidia’s Johnson pointed out, “There is a language barrier.” The AI world, he says, is very different from networking or storage, and data scientists find it hard to articulate their requirements to IT.

On the ground or in the cloud?

And then there is the decision of where exactly machine learning should happen—on site, or in the cloud? At Lazard, Mottl says, the deep learning engineers do their experimentation on premises; that’s their sandbox. “But when we deploy, we deploy in the cloud,” he says.

Nvidia, Johnson says, thinks the opposite approach is better. We see the cloud as “the sandbox,” he says. “So you can run as many experiments as possible, fail fast, and learn faster.”

For Cisco’s Irving, the “where” of machine learning depends on the confidentiality of the data.

Mottl, who says rolling machine learning technology into operation can hit resistance from all across the company, had one last word of caution for those aiming to implement AI:

Data scientists are building things that might change the ways other people in the organization work, like sales and even knowledge workers. [You need to] think about the internal stakeholders and prepare them, because the last thing you want to do is to create a valuable new thing that nobody likes and people take potshots against.

The AI Symposium was organized by the Silicon Valley chapters of the IEEE Young Professionals, the IEEE Consultants’ Network, and IEEE Women in Engineering and supported by Cisco. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435824 A Q&A with Cruise’s head of AI, ...

In 2016, Cruise, an autonomous vehicle startup acquired by General Motors, had about 50 employees. At the beginning of 2019, the headcount at its San Francisco headquarters—mostly software engineers, mostly working on projects connected to machine learning and artificial intelligence—hit around 1000. Now that number is up to 1500, and by the end of this year it’s expected to reach about 2000, sprawling into a recently purchased building that had housed Dropbox. And that’s not counting the 200 or so tech workers that Cruise is aiming to install in a Seattle, Wash., satellite development center and a handful of others in Phoenix, Ariz., and Pasadena, Calif.

Cruise’s recent hires aren’t all engineers—it takes more than engineering talent to manage operations. And there are hundreds of so-called safety drivers that are required to sit in the 180 or so autonomous test vehicles whenever they roam the San Francisco streets. But that’s still a lot of AI experts to be hiring in a time of AI engineer shortages.

Hussein Mehanna, head of AI/ML at Cruise, says the company’s hiring efforts are on track, due to the appeal of the challenge of autonomous vehicles in drawing in AI experts from other fields. Mehanna himself joined Cruise in May from Google, where he was director of engineering at Google Cloud AI. Mehanna had been there about a year and a half, a relatively quick career stop after a short stint at Snap following four years working in machine learning at Facebook.

Mehanna has been immersed in AI and machine learning research since his graduate studies in speech recognition and natural language processing at the University of Cambridge. I sat down with Mehanna to talk about his career, the challenges of recruiting AI experts and autonomous vehicle development in general—and some of the challenges specific to San Francisco. We were joined by Michael Thomas, Cruise’s manager of AI/ML recruiting, who had also spent time recruiting AI engineers at Google and then Facebook.

IEEE Spectrum: When you were at Cambridge, did you think AI was going to take off like a rocket?

Mehanna: Did I imagine that AI was going to be as dominant and prevailing and sometimes hyped as it is now? No. I do recall in 2003 that my supervisor and I were wondering if neural networks could help at all in speech recognition. I remember my supervisor saying if anyone could figure out how use a neural net for speech he would give them a grant immediately. So he was on the right path. Now neural networks have dominated vision, speech, and language [processing]. But that boom started in 2012.

“In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, it actually had a negative sentiment about researchers, and then Facebook shifted”

I didn’t [expect it], but I certainly aimed for it when [I was at] Microsoft, where I deliberately pushed my career towards machine learning instead of big data, which was more popular at the time. And [I aimed for it] when I joined Facebook.

In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, or researchers. It actually had a negative sentiment about researchers. And then Facebook shifted to becoming one of the key places where PhD students wanted to do internships or join after they graduated. It was a mindset shift, they were [once] at a point in time where they thought what was needed for success wasn’t research, but now it’s different.

There was definitely an element of risk [in taking a machine learning career path], but I was very lucky, things developed very fast.

IEEE Spectrum: Is it getting harder or easier to find AI engineers to hire, given the reported shortages?

Mehanna: There is a mismatch [between job openings and qualified engineers], though it is hard to quantify it with numbers. There is good news as well: I see a lot more students diving deep into machine learning and data in their [undergraduate] computer science studies, so it’s not as bleak as it seems. But there is massive demand in the market.

Here at Cruise, demand for AI talent is just growing and growing. It might be is saturating or slowing down at other kinds of companies, though, [which] are leveraging more traditional applications—ad prediction, recommendations—that have been out there in the market for a while. These are more mature, better understood problems.

I believe autonomous vehicle technologies is the most difficult AI problem out there. The magnitude of the challenge of these problems is 1000 times more than other problems. They aren’t as well understood yet, and they require far deeper technology. And also the quality at which they are expected to operate is off the roof.

The autonomous vehicle problem is the engineering challenge of our generation. There’s a lot of code to write, and if we think we are going to hire armies of people to write it line by line, it’s not going to work. Machine learning can accelerate the process of generating the code, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have engineers; we actually need a lot more engineers.

Sometimes people worry that AI is taking jobs. It is taking some developer jobs, but it is actually generating other developer jobs as well, protecting developers from the mundane and helping them build software faster and faster.

IEEE Spectrum: Are you concerned that the demand for AI in industry is drawing out the people in academia who are needed to educate future engineers, that is, the “eating the seed corn” problem?

Mehanna: There are some negative examples in the industry, but that’s not our style. We are looking for collaborations with professors, we want to cultivate a very deep and respectful relationship with universities.

And there’s another angle to this: Universities require a thriving industry for them to thrive. It is going to be extremely beneficial for academia to have this flourishing industry in AI, because it attracts more students to academia. I think we are doing them a fantastic favor by building these career opportunities. This is not the same as in my early days, [when] people told me “don’t go to AI; go to networking, work in the mobile industry; mobile is flourishing.”

IEEE Spectrum: Where are you looking as you try to find a thousand or so engineers to hire this year?

Thomas: We look for people who want to use machine learning to solve problems. They can be in many different industries—in the financial markets, in social media, in advertising. The autonomous vehicle industry is in its infancy. You can compare it to mobile in the early days: When the iPhone first came out, everyone was looking for developers with mobile experience, but you weren’t going to find them unless you went to straight to Apple, [so you had to hire other kinds of engineers]. This is the same type of thing: it is so new that you aren’t going to find experts in this area, because we are all still learning.

“You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move…now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.”

Mehanna: Because autonomous vehicle technology is the new frontier for AI experts, [the number of] people with both AI and autonomous vehicle experience is quite limited. So we are acquiring AI experts wherever they are, and helping them grow into the autonomous vehicle area. You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move; even though there is a lot of great tech developed, there’s even more innovation ahead, so now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems or applications to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.

It feels like the Internet in 1980. It’s about to happen, but there are endless applications [to be developed over] the next few decades. Even if we can get a car to drive safely, there is the question of how can we tune the ride comfort, and then applying it all to different cities, different vehicles, different driving situations, and who knows to what other applications.

I can see how I can spend a lifetime career trying to solve this problem.

IEEE Spectrum: Why are you doing most of your development in San Francisco?

Mehanna: I think the best talent of the world is in Silicon Valley, and solving the autonomous vehicle problem is going to require the best of the best. It’s not just the engineering talent that is here, but [also] the entrepreneurial spirit. Solving the problem just as a technology is not going to be successful, you need to solve the product and the technology together. And the entrepreneurial spirit is one of the key reasons Cruise secured 7.5 billion in funding [besides GM, the company has a number of outside investors, including Honda, Softbank, and T. Rowe Price]. That [funding] is another reason Cruise is ahead of many others, because this problem requires deep resources.

“If you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.”

[And then there is the driving environment.] When I speak to my peers in the industry, they have a lot of respect for us, because the problems to solve in San Francisco technically are an order of magnitude harder. It is a tight environment, with a lot of pedestrians, and driving patterns that, let’s put it this way, are not necessarily the best in the nation. Which means we are seeing more problems ahead of our competitors, which gets us to better [software]. I think if you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.

A version of this post appears in the September 2019 print magazine as “AI Engineers: The Autonomous-Vehicle Industry Wants You.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435822 The Internet Is Coming to the Rest of ...

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.”
—Peter Gabriel

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.”
—Jeremy Coller

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

Posted in Human Robots