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Swarms of microrobots will scuttle along beneath our roads and pavements, finding and fixing leaky pipes and faulty cables. Thanks to their efforts, we can avoid costly road work that costs billions of dollars each year—not to mention frustrating traffic delays.
That is, if a new project sponsored by the U.K. government is a success. Recent developments in the space seem to point towards a bright future for microrobots.
Microrobots Saving Billions
Each year, around 1.5 million road excavations take place across the U.K. Many are due to leaky pipes and faulty cables that necessitate excavation of road surfaces in order to fix them. The resulting repairs, alongside disruptions to traffic and businesses, are estimated to cost a whopping £6.3 billion ($8 billion).
A consortium of scientists, led by University of Sheffield Professor Kirill Horoshenkov, are planning to use microrobots to negate most of these costs. The group has received a £7.2 million ($9.2 million) grant to develop and build their bots.
According to Horoshenkov, the microrobots will come in two versions. One is an inspection bot, which will navigate along underground infrastructure and examine its condition via sonar. The inspectors will be complemented by worker bots capable of carrying out repairs with cement and adhesives or cleaning out blockages with a high-powered jet. The inspector bots will be around one centimeter long and possibly autonomous, while the worker bots will be slightly larger and steered via remote control.
If successful, it is believed the bots could potentially save the U.K. economy around £5 billion ($6.4 billion) a year.
The U.K. government has set aside a further £19 million ($24 million) for research into robots for hazardous environments, such as nuclear decommissioning, drones for oil pipeline monitoring, and artificial intelligence software to detect the need for repairs on satellites in orbit.
The Lowest-Hanging Fruit
Microrobots like the ones now under development in the U.K. have many potential advantages and use cases. Thanks to their small size they can navigate tight spaces, for example in search and rescue operations, and robot swarm technology would allow them to collaborate to perform many different functions, including in construction projects.
To date, the number of microrobots in use is relatively limited, but that could be about to change, with bots closing in on other types of inspection jobs, which could be considered one of the lowest-hanging fruits.
Engineering firm Rolls-Royce (not the car company, but the one that builds aircraft engines) is looking to use microrobots to inspect some of the up to 25,000 individual parts that make up an engine. The microrobots use the cockroach as a model, and Rolls Royce believes they could save engineers time when performing the maintenance checks that can take over a month per engine.
Even Smaller Successes
Going further down in scale, recent years have seen a string of successes for nanobots. For example, a team of researchers at the Femto-ST Institute have used nanobots to build what is likely the world’s smallest house (if this isn’t a category at Guinness, someone needs to get on the phone with them), which stands a ‘towering’ 0.015 millimeters.
One of the areas where nanobots have shown great promise is in medicine. Several studies have shown how the minute bots are capable of delivering drugs directly into dense biological tissue, which can otherwise be highly challenging to target directly. Such delivery systems have a great potential for improving the treatment of a wide range of ailments and illnesses, including cancer.
There’s no question that the ecosystem of microrobots and nanobots is evolving. While still in their early days, the above successes point to a near-future boom in the bots we may soon refer to as our ‘littlest everyday helpers.’
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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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We’ve long used the brain as inspiration for computers, but the SpiNNaker supercomputer, switched on this month, is probably the closest we’ve come to recreating it in silicon. Now scientists hope to use the supercomputer to model the very thing that inspired its design.
The brain is the most complex machine in the known universe, but that complexity comes primarily from its architecture rather than the individual components that make it up. Its highly interconnected structure means that relatively simple messages exchanged between billions of individual neurons add up to carry out highly complex computations.
That’s the paradigm that has inspired the ‘Spiking Neural Network Architecture” (SpiNNaker) supercomputer at the University of Manchester in the UK. The project is the brainchild of Steve Furber, the designer of the original ARM processor. After a decade of development, a million-core version of the machine that will eventually be able to simulate up to a billion neurons was switched on earlier this month.
The idea of splitting computation into very small chunks and spreading them over many processors is already the leading approach to supercomputing. But even the most parallel systems require a lot of communication, and messages may have to pack in a lot of information, such as the task that needs to be completed or the data that needs to be processed.
In contrast, messages in the brain consist of simple electrochemical impulses, or spikes, passed between neurons, with information encoded primarily in the timing or rate of those spikes (which is more important is a topic of debate among neuroscientists). Each neuron is connected to thousands of others via synapses, and complex computation relies on how spikes cascade through these highly-connected networks.
The SpiNNaker machine attempts to replicate this using a model called Address Event Representation. Each of the million cores can simulate roughly a million synapses, so depending on the model, 1,000 neurons with 1,000 connections or 100 neurons with 10,000 connections. Information is encoded in the timing of spikes and the identity of the neuron sending them. When a neuron is activated it broadcasts a tiny packet of data that contains its address, and spike timing is implicitly conveyed.
By modeling their machine on the architecture of the brain, the researchers hope to be able to simulate more biological neurons in real time than any other machine on the planet. The project is funded by the European Human Brain Project, a ten-year science mega-project aimed at bringing together neuroscientists and computer scientists to understand the brain, and researchers will be able to apply for time on the machine to run their simulations.
Importantly, it’s possible to implement various different neuronal models on the machine. The operation of neurons involves a variety of complex biological processes, and it’s still unclear whether this complexity is an artefact of evolution or central to the brain’s ability to process information. The ability to simulate up to a billion simple neurons or millions of more complex ones on the same machine should help to slowly tease out the answer.
Even at a billion neurons, that still only represents about one percent of the human brain, so it’s still going to be limited to investigating isolated networks of neurons. But the previous 500,000-core machine has already been used to do useful simulations of the Basal Ganglia—an area affected in Parkinson’s disease—and an outer layer of the brain that processes sensory information.
The full-scale supercomputer will make it possible to study even larger networks previously out of reach, which could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of both the healthy and unhealthy functioning of the brain.
And while neurological simulation is the main goal for the machine, it could also provide a useful research tool for roboticists. Previous research has already shown a small board of SpiNNaker chips can be used to control a simple wheeled robot, but Furber thinks the SpiNNaker supercomputer could also be used to run large-scale networks that can process sensory input and generate motor output in real time and at low power.
That low power operation is of particular promise for robotics. The brain is dramatically more power-efficient than conventional supercomputers, and by borrowing from its principles SpiNNaker has managed to capture some of that efficiency. That could be important for running mobile robotic platforms that need to carry their own juice around.
This ability to run complex neural networks at low power has been one of the main commercial drivers for so-called neuromorphic computing devices that are physically modeled on the brain, such as IBM’s TrueNorth chip and Intel’s Loihi. The hope is that complex artificial intelligence applications normally run in massive data centers could be run on edge devices like smartphones, cars, and robots.
But these devices, including SpiNNaker, operate very differently from the leading AI approaches, and its not clear how easy it would be to transfer between the two. The need to adopt an entirely new programming paradigm is likely to limit widespread adoption, and the lack of commercial traction for the aforementioned devices seems to back that up.
At the same time, though, this new paradigm could potentially lead to dramatic breakthroughs in massively parallel computing. SpiNNaker overturns many of the foundational principles of how supercomputers work that make it much more flexible and error-tolerant.
For now, the machine is likely to be firmly focused on accelerating our understanding of how the brain works. But its designers also hope those findings could in turn point the way to more efficient and powerful approaches to computing.
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