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The Tunnel Circuit of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge starts later this week at the NIOSH research mine just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From 15-22 August, 11 teams will send robots into a mine that they've never seen before, with the goal of making maps and locating items. All DARPA SubT events involve tunnels of one sort or another, but in this case, the “Tunnel Circuit” refers to mines as opposed to urban underground areas or natural caves. This month’s challenge is the first of three discrete events leading up to a huge final event in August of 2021.
While the Tunnel Circuit competition will be closed to the public, and media are only allowed access for a single day (which we'll be at, of course), DARPA has provided a substantial amount of information about what teams will be able to expect. We also have details from the SubT Integration Exercise, called STIX, which was a completely closed event that took place back in April. STIX was aimed at giving some teams (and DARPA) a chance to practice in a real tunnel environment.
For more general background on SubT, here are some articles to get you all caught up:
SubT: The Next DARPA Challenge for Robotics
Q&A with DARPA Program Manager Tim Chung
Meet The First Nine Teams
It makes sense to take a closer look at what happened at April's STIX exercise, because it is (probably) very similar to what teams will experience in the upcoming Tunnel Circuit. STIX took place at Edgar Experimental Mine in Colorado, and while no two mines are the same (and many are very, very different), there are enough similarities for STIX to have been a valuable experience for teams. Here's an overview video of the exercise from DARPA:
DARPA has also put together a much more detailed walkthrough of the STIX mine exercise, which gives you a sense of just how vast, complicated, and (frankly) challenging for robots the mine environment is:
So, that's the kind of thing that teams had to deal with back in April. Since the event was an exercise, rather than a competition, DARPA didn't really keep score, and wouldn't comment on the performance of individual teams. We've been trolling YouTube for STIX footage, though, to get a sense of how things went, and we found a few interesting videos.
Here's a nice overview from Team CERBERUS, which used drones plus an ANYmal quadruped:
Team CTU-CRAS also used drones, along with a tracked robot:
Team Robotika was brave enough to post video of a “fatal failure” experienced by its wheeled robot; the poor little bot gets rescued at about 7:00 in case you get worried:
So that was STIX. But what about the Tunnel Circuit competition this week? Here's a course preview video from DARPA:
It sort of looks like the NIOSH mine might be a bit less dusty than the Edgar mine was, but it could also be wetter and muddier. It’s hard to tell, because we’re just getting a few snapshots of what’s probably an enormous area with kilometers of tunnels that the robots will have to explore. But DARPA has promised “constrained passages, sharp turns, large drops/climbs, inclines, steps, ladders, and mud, sand, and/or water.” Combine that with the serious challenge to communications imposed by the mine itself, and robots will have to be both physically capable, and almost entirely autonomous. Which is, of course, exactly what DARPA is looking to test with this challenge.
Lastly, we had a chance to catch up with Tim Chung, Program Manager for the Subterranean Challenge at DARPA, and ask him a few brief questions about STIX and what we have to look forward to this week.
IEEE Spectrum: How did STIX go?
Tim Chung: It was a lot of fun! I think it gave a lot of the teams a great opportunity to really get a taste of what these types of real world environments look like, and also what DARPA has in store for them in the SubT Challenge. STIX I saw as an experiment—a learning experience for all the teams involved (as well as the DARPA team) so that we can continue our calibration.
What do you think teams took away from STIX, and what do you think DARPA took away from STIX?
I think the thing that teams took away was that, when DARPA hosts a challenge, we have very audacious visions for what the art of the possible is. And that's what we want—in my mind, the purpose of a DARPA Grand Challenge is to provide that inspiration of, ‘Holy cow, someone thinks we can do this!’ So I do think the teams walked away with a better understanding of what DARPA's vision is for the capabilities we're seeking in the SubT Challenge, and hopefully walked away with a better understanding of the technical, physical, even maybe mental challenges of doing this in the wild— which will all roll back into how they think about the problem, and how they develop their systems.
This was a collaborative exercise, so the DARPA field team was out there interacting with the other engineers, figuring out what their strengths and weaknesses and needs might be, and even understanding how to handle the robots themselves. That will help [strengthen] connections between these university teams and DARPA going forward. Across the board, I think that collaborative spirit is something we really wish to encourage, and something that the DARPA folks were able to take away.
What do we have to look forward to during the Tunnel Circuit?
The vision here is that the Tunnel Circuit is representative of one of the three subterranean subdomains, along with urban and cave. Characteristics of all of these three subdomains will be mashed together in an epic final course, so that teams will have to face hints of tunnel once again in that final event.
Without giving too much away, the NIOSH mine will be similar to the Edgar mine in that it's a human-made environment that supports mining operations and research. But of course, every site is different, and these differences, I think, will provide good opportunities for the teams to shine.
Again, we'll be visiting the NIOSH mine in Pennsylvania during the Tunnel Circuit and will post as much as we can from there. But if you’re an actual participant in the Subterranean Challenge, please tweet me @BotJunkie so that I can follow and help share live updates.
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As technology continues to progress, the possibility of an abundant future seems more likely. Artificial intelligence is expected to drive down the cost of labor, infrastructure, and transport. Alternative energy systems are reducing the cost of a wide variety of goods. Poverty rates are falling around the world as more people are able to make a living, and resources that were once inaccessible to millions are becoming widely available.
But such a life presents fuel for the most common complaint against abundance: if robots take all the jobs, basic income provides us livable welfare for doing nothing, and healthcare is a guarantee free of charge, then what is the point of our lives? What would motivate us to work and excel if there are no real risks or rewards? If everything is simply given to us, how would we feel like we’ve ever earned anything?
Time has proven that humans inherently yearn to overcome challenges—in fact, this very desire likely exists as the root of most technological innovation. And the idea that struggling makes us stronger isn’t just anecdotal, it’s scientifically validated.
For instance, kids who use anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers too often tend to develop weak immune systems, causing them to get sick more frequently and more severely. People who work out purposely suffer through torn muscles so that after a few days of healing their muscles are stronger. And when patients visit a psychologist to handle a fear that is derailing their lives, one of the most common treatments is exposure therapy: a slow increase of exposure to the suffering so that the patient gets stronger and braver each time, able to take on an incrementally more potent manifestation of their fears.
Different Kinds of Struggle
It’s not hard to understand why people might fear an abundant future as a terribly mundane one. But there is one crucial mistake made in this assumption, and it was well summarized by Indian mystic and author Sadhguru, who said during a recent talk at Google:
Stomach empty, only one problem. Stomach full—one hundred problems; because what we refer to as human really begins only after survival is taken care of.
This idea is backed up by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was first presented in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow shows the steps required to build to higher and higher levels of the human experience. Not surprisingly, the first two levels deal with physiological needs and the need for safety—in other words, with the body. You need to have food, water, and sleep, or you die. After that, you need to be protected from threats, from the elements, from dangerous people, and from disease and pain.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Photo by Wikimedia User:Factoryjoe / CC BY-SA 3.0
The beauty of these first two levels is that they’re clear-cut problems with clear-cut solutions: if you’re hungry, then you eat; if you’re thirsty, then you drink; if you’re tired, then you sleep.
But what about the next tiers of the hierarchy? What of love and belonging, of self-esteem and self-actualization? If we’re lonely, can we just summon up an authentic friend or lover? If we feel neglected by society, can we demand it validate us? If we feel discouraged and disappointed in ourselves, can we simply dial up some confidence and self-esteem?
Of course not, and that’s because these psychological needs are nebulous; they don’t contain clear problems with clear solutions. They involve the external world and other people, and are complicated by the infinite flavors of nuance and compromise that are required to navigate human relationships and personal meaning.
These psychological difficulties are where we grow our personalities, outlooks, and beliefs. The truly defining characteristics of a person are dictated not by the physical situations they were forced into—like birth, socioeconomic class, or physical ailment—but instead by the things they choose. So a future of abundance helps to free us from the physical limitations so that we can truly commit to a life of purpose and meaning, rather than just feel like survival is our purpose.
The Greatest Challenge
And that’s the plot twist. This challenge to come to grips with our own individuality and freedom could actually be the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. Can you imagine waking up every day with infinite possibility? Every choice you make says no to the rest of reality, and so every decision carries with it truly life-defining purpose and meaning. That sounds overwhelming. And that’s probably because in our current socio-economic systems, it is.
Studies have shown that people in wealthier nations tend to experience more anxiety and depression. Ron Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard and World Health Organization (WHO) researcher, summarized his findings of global mental health by saying, “When you’re literally trying to survive, who has time for depression? Americans, on the other hand, many of whom lead relatively comfortable lives, blow other nations away in the depression factor, leading some to suggest that depression is a ‘luxury disorder.’”
This might explain why America scores in the top rankings for the most depressed and anxious country on the planet. We surpassed our survival needs, and instead became depressed because our jobs and relationships don’t fulfill our expectations for the next three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (belonging, esteem, and self-actualization).
But a future of abundance would mean we’d have to deal with these levels. This is the challenge for the future; this is what keeps things from being mundane.
As a society, we would be forced to come to grips with our emotional intelligence, to reckon with philosophy rather than simply contemplate it. Nearly every person you meet will be passionately on their own customized life journey, not following a routine simply because of financial limitations. Such a world seems far more vibrant and interesting than one where most wander sleep-deprived and numb while attempting to survive the rat race.
We can already see the forceful hand of this paradigm shift as self-driving cars become ubiquitous. For example, consider the famous psychological and philosophical “trolley problem.” In this thought experiment, a person sees a trolley car heading towards five people on the train tracks; they see a lever that will allow them to switch the trolley car to a track that instead only has one person on it. Do you switch the lever and have a hand in killing one person, or do you let fate continue and kill five people instead?
For the longest time, this was just an interesting quandary to consider. But now, massive corporations have to have an answer, so they can program their self-driving cars with the ability to choose between hitting a kid who runs into the road or swerving into an oncoming car carrying a family of five. When companies need philosophers to make business decisions, it’s a good sign of what’s to come.
Luckily, it’s possible this forceful reckoning with philosophy and our own consciousness may be exactly what humanity needs. Perhaps our great failure as a species has been a result of advanced cognition still trapped in the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy due to a long history of scarcity.
As suggested in the opening scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, our ape-like proclivity for violence has long stayed the same while the technology we fight with and live amongst has progressed. So while well-off Americans may have comfortable lives, they still know they live in a system where there is no safety net, where a single tragic failure could still mean hunger and homelessness. And because of this, that evolutionarily hard-wired neurotic part of our brain that fears for our survival has never been able to fully relax, and so that anxiety and depression that come with too much freedom but not enough security stays ever present.
Not only might this shift in consciousness help liberate humanity, but it may be vital if we’re to survive our future creations as well. Whatever values we hold dear as a species are the ones we will imbue into the sentient robots we create. If machine learning is going to take its guidance from humanity, we need to level up humanity’s emotional maturity.
While the physical struggles of the future may indeed fall to the wayside amongst abundance, it’s unlikely to become a mundane world; instead, it will become a vibrant culture where each individual is striving against the most important struggle that affects all of us: the challenge to find inner peace, to find fulfillment, to build meaningful relationships, and ultimately, the challenge to find ourselves.
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