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#433770 Will Tech Make Insurance Obsolete in the ...

We profit from it, we fear it, and we find it impossibly hard to quantify: risk.

While not the sexiest of industries, insurance can be a life-saving protector, pooling everyone’s premiums to safeguard against some of our greatest, most unexpected losses.

One of the most profitable in the world, the insurance industry exceeded $1.2 trillion in annual revenue since 2011 in the US alone.

But risk is becoming predictable. And insurance is getting disrupted fast.

By 2025, we’ll be living in a trillion-sensor economy. And as we enter a world where everything is measured all the time, we’ll start to transition from protecting against damages to preventing them in the first place.

But what happens to health insurance when Big Brother is always watching? Do rates go up when you sneak a cigarette? Do they go down when you eat your vegetables?

And what happens to auto insurance when most cars are autonomous? Or life insurance when the human lifespan doubles?

For that matter, what happens to insurance brokers when blockchain makes them irrelevant?

In this article, I’ll be discussing four key transformations:

Sensors and AI replacing your traditional broker
Blockchain
The ecosystem approach
IoT and insurance connectivity

Let’s dive in.

AI and the Trillion-Sensor Economy
As sensors continue to proliferate across every context—from smart infrastructure to millions of connected home devices to medicine—smart environments will allow us to ask any question, anytime, anywhere.

And as I often explain, once your AI has access to this treasure trove of ubiquitous sensor data in real time, it will be the quality of your questions that make or break your business.

But perhaps the most exciting insurance application of AI’s convergence with sensors is in healthcare. Tremendous advances in genetic screening are empowering us with predictive knowledge about our long-term health risks.

Leading the charge in genome sequencing, Illumina predicts that in a matter of years, decoding the full human genome will drop to $100, taking merely one hour to complete. Other companies are racing to get you sequences faster and cheaper.

Adopting an ecosystem approach, incumbent insurers and insurtech firms will soon be able to collaborate to provide risk-minimizing services in the health sector. Using sensor data and AI-driven personalized recommendations, insurance partnerships could keep consumers healthy, dramatically reducing the cost of healthcare.

Some fear that information asymmetry will allow consumers to learn of their health risks and leave insurers in the dark. However, both parties could benefit if insurers become part of the screening process.

A remarkable example of this is Gilad Meiri’s company, Neura AI. Aiming to predict health patterns, Neura has developed machine learning algorithms that analyze data from all of a user’s connected devices (sometimes from up to 54 apps!).

Neura predicts a user’s behavior and draws staggering insights about consumers’ health risks. Meiri soon began selling his personal risk assessment tool to insurers, who could then help insured customers mitigate long-term health risks.

But artificial intelligence will impact far more than just health insurance.

In October of 2016, a claim was submitted to Lemonade, the world’s first peer-to-peer insurance company. Rather than being processed by a human, every step in this claim resolution chain—from initial triage through fraud mitigation through final payment—was handled by an AI.

This transaction marks the first time an AI has processed an insurance claim. And it won’t be the last. A traditional human-processed claim takes 40 days to pay out. In Lemonade’s case, payment was transferred within three seconds.

However, Lemonade’s achievement only marks a starting point. Over the course of the next decade, nearly every facet of the insurance industry will undergo a similarly massive transformation.

New business models like peer-to-peer insurance are replacing traditional brokerage relationships, while AI and blockchain pairings significantly reduce the layers of bureaucracy required (with each layer getting a cut) for traditional insurance.

Consider Juniper, a startup that scrapes social media to build your risk assessment, subsequently asking you 12 questions via an iPhone app. Geared with advanced analytics, the platform can generate a million-dollar life insurance policy, approved in less than five minutes.

But what’s keeping all your data from unwanted hands?

Blockchain Building Trust
Current distrust in centralized financial services has led to staggering rates of underinsurance. Add to this fear of poor data and privacy protection, particularly in the wake of 2017’s widespread cybercriminal hacks.

Enabling secure storage and transfer of personal data, blockchain holds remarkable promise against the fraudulent activity that often plagues insurance firms.

The centralized model of insurance companies and other organizations is becoming redundant. Developing blockchain-based solutions for capital markets, Symbiont develops smart contracts to execute payments with little to no human involvement.

But distributed ledger technology (DLT) is enabling far more than just smart contracts.

Also targeting insurance is Tradle, leveraging blockchain for its proclaimed goal of “building a trust provisioning network.” Built around “know-your-customer” (KYC) data, Tradle aims to verify KYC data so that it can be securely forwarded to other firms without any further verification.

By requiring a certain number of parties to reuse pre-verified data, the platform makes your data much less vulnerable to hacking and allows you to keep it on a personal device. Only its verification—let’s say of a transaction or medical exam—is registered in the blockchain.

As insurance data grow increasingly decentralized, key insurance players will experience more and more pressure to adopt an ecosystem approach.

The Ecosystem Approach
Just as exponential technologies converge to provide new services, exponential businesses must combine the strengths of different sectors to expand traditional product lines.

By partnering with platform-based insurtech firms, forward-thinking insurers will no longer serve only as reactive policy-providers, but provide risk-mitigating services as well.

Especially as digital technologies demonetize security services—think autonomous vehicles—insurers must create new value chains and span more product categories.

For instance, France’s multinational AXA recently partnered with Alibaba and Ant Financial Services to sell a varied range of insurance products on Alibaba’s global e-commerce platform at the click of a button.

Building another ecosystem, Alibaba has also collaborated with Ping An Insurance and Tencent to create ZhongAn Online Property and Casualty Insurance—China’s first internet-only insurer, offering over 300 products. Now with a multibillion-dollar valuation, Zhong An has generated about half its business from selling shipping return insurance to Alibaba consumers.

But it doesn’t stop there. Insurers that participate in digital ecosystems can now sell risk-mitigating services that prevent damage before it occurs.

Imagine a corporate manufacturer whose sensors collect data on environmental factors affecting crop yield in an agricultural community. With the backing of investors and advanced risk analytics, such a manufacturer could sell crop insurance to farmers. By implementing an automated, AI-driven UI, they could automatically make payments when sensors detect weather damage to crops.

Now let’s apply this concept to your house, your car, your health insurance.

What’s stopping insurers from partnering with third-party IoT platforms to predict fires, collisions, chronic heart disease—and then empowering the consumer with preventive services?

This brings us to the powerful field of IoT.

Internet of Things and Insurance Connectivity
Leap ahead a few years. With a centralized hub like Echo, your smart home protects itself with a network of sensors. While gone, you’ve left on a gas burner and your internet-connected stove notifies you via a home app.

Better yet, home sensors monitoring heat and humidity levels run this data through an AI, which then remotely controls heating, humidity levels, and other connected devices based on historical data patterns and fire risk factors.

Several firms are already working toward this reality.

AXA plans to one day cooperate with a centralized home hub whereby remote monitoring will collect data for future analysis and detect abnormalities.

With remote monitoring and app-centralized control for users, MonAXA is aimed at customizing insurance bundles. These would reflect exact security features embedded in smart homes.

Wouldn’t you prefer not to have to rely on insurance after a burglary? With digital ecosystems, insurers may soon prevent break-ins from the start.

By gathering sensor data from third parties on neighborhood conditions, historical theft data, suspicious activity and other risk factors, an insurtech firm might automatically put your smart home on high alert, activating alarms and specialized locks in advance of an attack.

Insurance policy premiums are predicted to vastly reduce with lessened likelihood of insured losses. But insurers moving into preventive insurtech will likely turn a profit from other areas of their business. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the connected home market will reach $149 billion USD by 2020.

Let’s look at car insurance.

Car insurance premiums are currently calculated according to the driver and traits of the car. But as more autonomous vehicles take to the roads, not only does liability shift to manufacturers and software engineers, but the risk of collision falls dramatically.

But let’s take this a step further.

In a future of autonomous cars, you will no longer own your car, instead subscribing to Transport as a Service (TaaS) and giving up the purchase of automotive insurance altogether.

This paradigm shift has already begun with Waymo, which automatically provides passengers with insurance every time they step into a Waymo vehicle.

And with the rise of smart traffic systems, sensor-embedded roads, and skyrocketing autonomous vehicle technology, the risks involved in transit only continue to plummet.

Final Thoughts
Insurtech firms are hitting the market fast. IoT, autonomous vehicles and genetic screening are rapidly making us invulnerable to risk. And AI-driven services are quickly pushing conventional insurers out of the market.

By 2024, roll-out of 5G on the ground, as well as OneWeb and Starlink in orbit are bringing 4.2 billion new consumers to the web—most of whom will need insurance. Yet, because of the changes afoot in the industry, none of them will buy policies from a human broker.

While today’s largest insurance companies continue to ignore this fact at their peril (and this segment of the market), thousands of entrepreneurs see it more clearly: as one of the largest opportunities ahead.

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#433758 DeepMind’s New Research Plan to Make ...

Making sure artificial intelligence does what we want and behaves in predictable ways will be crucial as the technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous. It’s an area frequently neglected in the race to develop products, but DeepMind has now outlined its research agenda to tackle the problem.

AI safety, as the field is known, has been gaining prominence in recent years. That’s probably at least partly down to the overzealous warnings of a coming AI apocalypse from well-meaning, but underqualified pundits like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. But it’s also recognition of the fact that AI technology is quickly pervading all aspects of our lives, making decisions on everything from what movies we watch to whether we get a mortgage.

That’s why DeepMind hired a bevy of researchers who specialize in foreseeing the unforeseen consequences of the way we built AI back in 2016. And now the team has spelled out the three key domains they think require research if we’re going to build autonomous machines that do what we want.

In a new blog designed to provide updates on the team’s work, they introduce the ideas of specification, robustness, and assurance, which they say will act as the cornerstones of their future research. Specification involves making sure AI systems do what their operator intends; robustness means a system can cope with changes to its environment and attempts to throw it off course; and assurance involves our ability to understand what systems are doing and how to control them.

A classic thought experiment designed to illustrate how we could lose control of an AI system can help illustrate the problem of specification. Philosopher Nick Bostrom’s posited a hypothetical machine charged with making as many paperclips as possible. Because the creators fail to add what they might assume are obvious additional goals like not harming people, the AI wipes out humanity so we can’t switch it off before turning all matter in the universe into paperclips.

Obviously the example is extreme, but it shows how a poorly-specified goal can lead to unexpected and disastrous outcomes. Properly codifying the desires of the designer is no easy feat, though; often there are not neat ways to encompass both the explicit and implicit goals in ways that are understandable to the machine and don’t leave room for ambiguities, meaning we often rely on incomplete approximations.

The researchers note recent research by OpenAI in which an AI was trained to play a boat-racing game called CoastRunners. The game rewards players for hitting targets laid out along the race route. The AI worked out that it could get a higher score by repeatedly knocking over regenerating targets rather than actually completing the course. The blog post includes a link to a spreadsheet detailing scores of such examples.

Another key concern for AI designers is making their creation robust to the unpredictability of the real world. Despite their superhuman abilities on certain tasks, most cutting-edge AI systems are remarkably brittle. They tend to be trained on highly-curated datasets and so can fail when faced with unfamiliar input. This can happen by accident or by design—researchers have come up with numerous ways to trick image recognition algorithms into misclassifying things, including thinking a 3D printed tortoise was actually a gun.

Building systems that can deal with every possible encounter may not be feasible, so a big part of making AIs more robust may be getting them to avoid risks and ensuring they can recover from errors, or that they have failsafes to ensure errors don’t lead to catastrophic failure.

And finally, we need to have ways to make sure we can tell whether an AI is performing the way we expect it to. A key part of assurance is being able to effectively monitor systems and interpret what they’re doing—if we’re basing medical treatments or sentencing decisions on the output of an AI, we’d like to see the reasoning. That’s a major outstanding problem for popular deep learning approaches, which are largely indecipherable black boxes.

The other half of assurance is the ability to intervene if a machine isn’t behaving the way we’d like. But designing a reliable off switch is tough, because most learning systems have a strong incentive to prevent anyone from interfering with their goals.

The authors don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they hope the framework they’ve come up with can help guide others working on AI safety. While it may be some time before AI is truly in a position to do us harm, hopefully early efforts like these will mean it’s built on a solid foundation that ensures it is aligned with our goals.

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#433655 First-Ever Grad Program in Space Mining ...

Maybe they could call it the School of Space Rock: A new program being offered at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) will educate post-graduate students on the nuts and bolts of extracting and using valuable materials such as rare metals and frozen water from space rocks like asteroids or the moon.

Officially called Space Resources, the graduate-level program is reputedly the first of its kind in the world to offer a course in the emerging field of space mining. Heading the program is Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at Mines, a well-known engineering school located in Golden, Colorado, where Molson Coors taps Rocky Mountain spring water for its earthly brews.

The first semester for the new discipline began last month. While Abbud-Madrid didn’t immediately respond to an interview request, Singularity Hub did talk to Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, a space mining company whose founders include Peter Diamandis, Singularity University co-founder.

A former NASA engineer who worked on multiple Mars missions, Lewicki says the Space Resources program at CSM, with its multidisciplinary focus on science, economics, and policy, will help students be light years ahead of their peers in the nascent field of space mining.

“I think it’s very significant that they’ve started this program,” he said. “Having students with that kind of background exposure just allows them to be productive on day one instead of having to kind of fill in a lot of things for them.”

Who would be attracted to apply for such a program? There are many professionals who could be served by a post-baccalaureate certificate, master’s degree, or even Ph.D. in Space Resources, according to Lewicki. Certainly aerospace engineers and planetary scientists would be among the faces in the classroom.

“I think it’s [also] people who have an interest in what I would call maybe space robotics,” he said. Lewicki is referring not only to the classic example of robotic arms like the Canadarm2, which lends a hand to astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but other types of autonomous platforms.

One example might be Planetary Resources’ own Arkyd-6, a small, autonomous satellite called a CubeSat launched earlier this year to test different technologies that might be used for deep-space exploration of resources. The proof-of-concept was as much a test for the technology—such as the first space-based use of a mid-wave infrared imager to detect water resources—as it was for being able to work in space on a shoestring budget.

“We really proved that doing one of these billion-dollar science missions to deep space can be done for a lot less if you have a very focused goal, and if you kind of cut a lot of corners and then put some commercial approaches into those things,” Lewicki said.

A Trillion-Dollar Industry
Why space mining? There are at least a trillion reasons.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said that the first trillionaire will be the “person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids.” That’s because asteroids—rocky remnants from the formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago—harbor precious metals, ranging from platinum and gold to iron and nickel.

For instance, one future target of exploration by NASA—an asteroid dubbed 16 Psyche, orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion. It’s a number so mind-bogglingly big that it would crash the global economy, if someone ever figured out how to tow it back to Earth without literally crashing it into the planet.

Living Off the Land
Space mining isn’t just about getting rich. Many argue that humanity’s ability to extract resources in space, especially water that can be refined into rocket fuel, will be a key technology to extend our reach beyond near-Earth space.

The presence of frozen water around the frigid polar regions of the moon, for example, represents an invaluable source to power future deep-space missions. Splitting H20 into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen would provide a nearly inexhaustible source of rocket fuel. Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit, according to NASA.

Until more advanced rocket technology is developed, the moon looks to be the best bet for serving as the launching pad to Mars and beyond.

Moon Versus Asteroid
However, Lewicki notes that despite the moon’s proximity and our more intimate familiarity with its pockmarked surface, that doesn’t mean a lunar mission to extract resources is any easier than a multi-year journey to a fast-moving asteroid.

For one thing, fighting gravity to and from the moon is no easy feat, as the moon has a significantly stronger gravitational field than an asteroid. Another challenge is that the frozen water is located in permanently shadowed lunar craters, meaning space miners can’t rely on solar-powered equipment, but on some sort of external energy source.

And then there’s the fact that moon craters might just be the coldest places in the solar system. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter found temperatures plummeted as low as 26 Kelvin, or more than minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In comparison, the coldest temperatures on Earth have been recorded near the South Pole in Antarctica—about minus 148 degrees F.

“We don’t operate machines in that kind of thermal environment,” Lewicki said of the extreme temperatures detected in the permanent dark regions of the moon. “Antarctica would be a balmy desert island compared to a lunar polar crater.”

Of course, no one knows quite what awaits us in the asteroid belt. Answers may soon be forthcoming. Last week, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency landed two small, hopping rovers on an asteroid called Ryugu. Meanwhile, NASA hopes to retrieve a sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu when its OSIRIS-REx mission makes contact at the end of this year.

No Bucks, No Buck Rogers
Visionaries like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos talk about colonies on Mars, with millions of people living and working in space. The reality is that there’s probably a reason Buck Rogers was set in the 25th century: It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time to realize those sci-fi visions.

Or, as Lewicki put it: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

The cost of operating in outer space can be prohibitive. Planetary Resources itself is grappling with raising additional funding, with reports this year about layoffs and even a possible auction of company assets.

Still, Lewicki is confident that despite economic and technical challenges, humanity will someday exceed even the boldest dreamers—skyscrapers on the moon, interplanetary trips to Mars—as judged against today’s engineering marvels.

“What we’re doing is going to be very hard, very painful, and almost certainly worth it,” he said. “Who would have thought that there would be a job for a space miner that you could go to school for, even just five or ten years ago. Things move quickly.”

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#433634 This Robotic Skin Makes Inanimate ...

In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.

Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.

When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.

Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.

The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.

The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.

By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.

“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”

There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.

In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.

“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.

“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”

Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.

The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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#433506 MIT’s New Robot Taught Itself to Pick ...

Back in 2016, somewhere in a Google-owned warehouse, more than a dozen robotic arms sat for hours quietly grasping objects of various shapes and sizes. For hours on end, they taught themselves how to pick up and hold the items appropriately—mimicking the way a baby gradually learns to use its hands.

Now, scientists from MIT have made a new breakthrough in machine learning: their new system can not only teach itself to see and identify objects, but also understand how best to manipulate them.

This means that, armed with the new machine learning routine referred to as “dense object nets (DON),” the robot would be capable of picking up an object that it’s never seen before, or in an unfamiliar orientation, without resorting to trial and error—exactly as a human would.

The deceptively simple ability to dexterously manipulate objects with our hands is a huge part of why humans are the dominant species on the planet. We take it for granted. Hardware innovations like the Shadow Dexterous Hand have enabled robots to softly grip and manipulate delicate objects for many years, but the software required to control these precision-engineered machines in a range of circumstances has proved harder to develop.

This was not for want of trying. The Amazon Robotics Challenge offers millions of dollars in prizes (and potentially far more in contracts, as their $775m acquisition of Kiva Systems shows) for the best dexterous robot able to pick and package items in their warehouses. The lucrative dream of a fully-automated delivery system is missing this crucial ability.

Meanwhile, the Robocup@home challenge—an offshoot of the popular Robocup tournament for soccer-playing robots—aims to make everyone’s dream of having a robot butler a reality. The competition involves teams drilling their robots through simple household tasks that require social interaction or object manipulation, like helping to carry the shopping, sorting items onto a shelf, or guiding tourists around a museum.

Yet all of these endeavors have proved difficult; the tasks often have to be simplified to enable the robot to complete them at all. New or unexpected elements, such as those encountered in real life, more often than not throw the system entirely. Programming the robot’s every move in explicit detail is not a scalable solution: this can work in the highly-controlled world of the assembly line, but not in everyday life.

Computer vision is improving all the time. Neural networks, including those you train every time you prove that you’re not a robot with CAPTCHA, are getting better at sorting objects into categories, and identifying them based on sparse or incomplete data, such as when they are occluded, or in different lighting.

But many of these systems require enormous amounts of input data, which is impractical, slow to generate, and often needs to be laboriously categorized by humans. There are entirely new jobs that require people to label, categorize, and sift large bodies of data ready for supervised machine learning. This can make machine learning undemocratic. If you’re Google, you can make thousands of unwitting volunteers label your images for you with CAPTCHA. If you’re IBM, you can hire people to manually label that data. If you’re an individual or startup trying something new, however, you will struggle to access the vast troves of labeled data available to the bigger players.

This is why new systems that can potentially train themselves over time or that allow robots to deal with situations they’ve never seen before without mountains of labelled data are a holy grail in artificial intelligence. The work done by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is part of a new wave of “self-supervised” machine learning systems—little of the data used was labeled by humans.

The robot first inspects the new object from multiple angles, building up a 3D picture of the object with its own coordinate system. This then allows the robotic arm to identify a particular feature on the object—such as a handle, or the tongue of a shoe—from various different angles, based on its relative distance to other grid points.

This is the real innovation: the new means of representing objects to grasp as mapped-out 3D objects, with grid points and subsections of their own. Rather than using a computer vision algorithm to identify a door handle, and then activating a door handle grasping subroutine, the DON system treats all objects by making these spatial maps before classifying or manipulating them, enabling it to deal with a greater range of objects than in other approaches.

“Many approaches to manipulation can’t identify specific parts of an object across the many orientations that object may encounter,” said PhD student Lucas Manuelli, who wrote a new paper about the system with lead author and fellow student Pete Florence, alongside MIT professor Russ Tedrake. “For example, existing algorithms would be unable to grasp a mug by its handle, especially if the mug could be in multiple orientations, like upright, or on its side.”

Class-specific descriptors, which can be applied to the object features, can allow the robot arm to identify a mug, find the handle, and pick the mug up appropriately. Object-specific descriptors allow the robot arm to select a particular mug from a group of similar items. I’m already dreaming of a robot butler reliably picking my favourite mug when it serves me coffee in the morning.

Google’s robot arm-y was an attempt to develop a general grasping algorithm: one that could identify, categorize, and appropriately grip as many items as possible. This requires a great deal of training time and data, which is why Google parallelized their project by having 14 robot arms feed data into a single neural network brain: even then, the algorithm may fail with highly specific tasks. Specialist grasping algorithms might require less training if they’re limited to specific objects, but then your software is useless for general tasks.

As the roboticists noted, their system, with its ability to identify parts of an object rather than just a single object, is better suited to specific tasks, such as “grasp the racquet by the handle,” than Amazon Robotics Challenge robots, which identify whole objects by segmenting an image.

This work is small-scale at present. It has been tested with a few classes of objects, including shoes, hats, and mugs. Yet the use of these dense object nets as a way for robots to represent and manipulate new objects may well be another step towards the ultimate goal of generalized automation: a robot capable of performing every task a person can. If that point is reached, the question that will remain is how to cope with being obsolete.

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