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Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a restaurant scene or a domestic setting, these robots perform any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with their shopping. Serve the customers at the restaurant.”
This is Robocup @ Home, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering the technology required reveals that they’re really not.
The Robot Butler Contest
Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are entire multi-million-dollar competitions just dedicated to developing robots that can grasp a range of objects—and then return it to you.
It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only developed in the 1970s.
Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced, sardonic JARVIS who’s already made your favorite dinner when you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.
Caring for the Elderly
Famously, Japan is one of the most robo-enthusiastic nations in the world; they are the nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several studies have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously considered as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.
Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple but programmable robot with a single arm; it can be remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients. HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating objects.
Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation, at roughly three times the rate of construction workers, due to the day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers with the heavy lifting.
The Home of the Future
The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and, in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the immensely complicated task of building a fully capable humanoid robot—a task that even Google’s skunk-works department gave up on, at least until recently.
It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the robots fail to perform basic tasks.
Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic task, like iRobot’s Roomba, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful domestic robot of all time by far.
The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive but expensive automated kitchen uses the world’s most dexterous hands to cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.
In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the earth.
Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot, and hope that one day it will form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role to play in the household.
The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a long time, to the extent that movies featuring smart homes out of control are already a cliché. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that, more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can break (NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is something else entirely.
That’s before you even get into the security vulnerabilities, which are all the more important when devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your children might sound like something a security-conscious parent would like: a smart watch that can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings, and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their parents is the stuff of nightmares.
Key to many of these problems is the lack of standardization for security protocols, and even the products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to work together on the same system.
It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?” is that it is gradually, painstakingly learning how to sort through groceries.
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As if stand-alone technologies weren’t advancing fast enough, we’re in age where we must study the intersection points of these technologies. How is what’s happening in robotics influenced by what’s happening in 3D printing? What could be made possible by applying the latest advances in quantum computing to nanotechnology?
Along these lines, one crucial tech intersection is that of artificial intelligence and genomics. Each field is seeing constant progress, but Jamie Metzl believes it’s their convergence that will really push us into uncharted territory, beyond even what we’ve imagined in science fiction. “There’s going to be this push and pull, this competition between the reality of our biology with its built-in limitations and the scope of our aspirations,” he said.
Metzl is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. At Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference last week, he shared his insights on genomics and AI, and where their convergence could take us.
Life As We Know It
Metzl explained how genomics as a field evolved slowly—and then quickly. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA, and realized that the order of the base pairs held a treasure trove of genetic information. There was such a thing as a book of life, and we’d found it.
In 2003, when the Human Genome Project was completed (after 13 years and $2.7 billion), we learned the order of the genome’s 3 billion base pairs, and the location of specific genes on our chromosomes. Not only did a book of life exist, we figured out how to read it.
Jamie Metzl at Exponential Medicine
Fifteen years after that, it’s 2018 and precision gene editing in plants, animals, and humans is changing everything, and quickly pushing us into an entirely new frontier. Forget reading the book of life—we’re now learning how to write it.
“Readable, writable, and hackable, what’s clear is that human beings are recognizing that we are another form of information technology, and just like our IT has entered this exponential curve of discovery, we will have that with ourselves,” Metzl said. “And it’s intersecting with the AI revolution.”
Learning About Life Meets Machine Learning
In 2016, DeepMind’s AlphaGo program outsmarted the world’s top Go player. In 2017 AlphaGo Zero was created: unlike AlphaGo, AlphaGo Zero wasn’t trained using previous human games of Go, but was simply given the rules of Go—and in four days it defeated the AlphaGo program.
Our own biology is, of course, vastly more complex than the game of Go, and that, Metzl said, is our starting point. “The system of our own biology that we are trying to understand is massively, but very importantly not infinitely, complex,” he added.
Getting a standardized set of rules for our biology—and, eventually, maybe even outsmarting our biology—will require genomic data. Lots of it.
Multiple countries already starting to produce this data. The UK’s National Health Service recently announced a plan to sequence the genomes of five million Britons over the next five years. In the US the All of Us Research Program will sequence a million Americans. China is the most aggressive in sequencing its population, with a goal of sequencing half of all newborns by 2020.
“We’re going to get these massive pools of sequenced genomic data,” Metzl said. “The real gold will come from comparing people’s sequenced genomes to their electronic health records, and ultimately their life records.” Getting people comfortable with allowing open access to their data will be another matter; Metzl mentioned that Luna DNA and others have strategies to help people get comfortable with giving consent to their private information. But this is where China’s lack of privacy protection could end up being a significant advantage.
To compare genotypes and phenotypes at scale—first millions, then hundreds of millions, then eventually billions, Metzl said—we’re going to need AI and big data analytic tools, and algorithms far beyond what we have now. These tools will let us move from precision medicine to predictive medicine, knowing precisely when and where different diseases are going to occur and shutting them down before they start.
But, Metzl said, “As we unlock the genetics of ourselves, it’s not going to be about just healthcare. It’s ultimately going to be about who and what we are as humans. It’s going to be about identity.”
Designer Babies, and Their Babies
In Metzl’s mind, the most serious application of our genomic knowledge will be in embryo selection.
Currently, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures can extract around 15 eggs, fertilize them, then do pre-implantation genetic testing; right now what’s knowable is single-gene mutation diseases and simple traits like hair color and eye color. As we get to the millions and then billions of people with sequences, we’ll have information about how these genetics work, and we’re going to be able to make much more informed choices,” Metzl said.
Imagine going to a fertility clinic in 2023. You give a skin graft or a blood sample, and using in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG)—infertility be damned—your skin or blood cells are induced to become eggs or sperm, which are then combined to create embryos. The dozens or hundreds of embryos created from artificial gametes each have a few cells extracted from them, and these cells are sequenced. The sequences will tell you the likelihood of specific traits and disease states were that embryo to be implanted and taken to full term. “With really anything that has a genetic foundation, we’ll be able to predict with increasing levels of accuracy how that potential child will be realized as a human being,” Metzl said.
This, he added, could lead to some wild and frightening possibilities: if you have 1,000 eggs and you pick one based on its optimal genetic sequence, you could then mate your embryo with somebody else who has done the same thing in a different genetic line. “Your five-day-old embryo and their five-day-old embryo could have a child using the same IVG process,” Metzl said. “Then that child could have a child with another five-day-old embryo from another genetic line, and you could go on and on down the line.”
Sounds insane, right? But wait, there’s more: as Jason Pontin reported earlier this year in Wired, “Gene-editing technologies such as Crispr-Cas9 would make it relatively easy to repair, add, or remove genes during the IVG process, eliminating diseases or conferring advantages that would ripple through a child’s genome. This all may sound like science fiction, but to those following the research, the combination of IVG and gene editing appears highly likely, if not inevitable.”
From Crazy to Commonplace?
It’s a slippery slope from gene editing and embryo-mating to a dystopian race to build the most perfect humans possible. If somebody’s investing so much time and energy in selecting their embryo, Metzl asked, how will they think about the mating choices of their children? IVG could quickly leave the realm of healthcare and enter that of evolution.
“We all need to be part of an inclusive, integrated, global dialogue on the future of our species,” Metzl said. “Healthcare professionals are essential nodes in this.” Not least among this dialogue should be the question of access to tech like IVG; are there steps we can take to keep it from becoming a tool for a wealthy minority, and thereby perpetuating inequality and further polarizing societies?
As Pontin points out, at its inception 40 years ago IVF also sparked fear, confusion, and resistance—and now it’s as normal and common as could be, with millions of healthy babies conceived using the technology.
The disruption that genomics, AI, and IVG will bring to reproduction could follow a similar story cycle—if we’re smart about it. As Metzl put it, “This must be regulated, because it is life.”
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