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#433939 The Promise—and Complications—of ...

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.

Domestic Bliss?
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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#433911 Thanksgiving Food for Thought: The Tech ...

With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, it’s a great time to reflect on the future of food. Over the last few years, we have seen a dramatic rise in exponential technologies transforming the food industry from seed to plate. Food is important in many ways—too little or too much of it can kill us, and it is often at the heart of family, culture, our daily routines, and our biggest celebrations. The agriculture and food industries are also two of the world’s biggest employers. Let’s take a look to see what is in store for the future.

Robotic Farms
Over the last few years, we have seen a number of new companies emerge in the robotic farming industry. This includes new types of farming equipment used in arable fields, as well as indoor robotic vertical farms. In November 2017, Hands Free Hectare became the first in the world to remotely grow an arable crop. They used autonomous tractors to sow and spray crops, small rovers to take soil samples, drones to monitor crop growth, and an unmanned combine harvester to collect the crops. Since then, they’ve also grown and harvested a field of winter wheat, and have been adding additional technologies and capabilities to their arsenal of robotic farming equipment.

Indoor vertical farming is also rapidly expanding. As Engadget reported in October 2018, a number of startups are now growing crops like leafy greens, tomatoes, flowers, and herbs. These farms can grow food in urban areas, reducing transport, water, and fertilizer costs, and often don’t need pesticides since they are indoors. IronOx, which is using robots to grow plants with navigation technology used by self-driving cars, can grow 30 times more food per acre of land using 90 percent less water than traditional farmers. Vertical farming company Plenty was recently funded by Softbank’s Vision Fund, Jeff Bezos, and others to build 300 vertical farms in China.

These startups are not only succeeding in wealthy countries. Hello Tractor, an “uberized” tractor, has worked with 250,000 smallholder farms in Africa, creating both food security and tech-infused agriculture jobs. The World Food Progam’s Innovation Accelerator (an impact partner of Singularity University) works with hundreds of startups aimed at creating zero hunger. One project is focused on supporting refugees in developing “food computers” in refugee camps—computerized devices that grow food while also adjusting to the conditions around them. As exponential trends drive down the costs of robotics, sensors, software, and energy, we should see robotic farming scaling around the world and becoming the main way farming takes place.

Cultured Meat
Exponential technologies are not only revolutionizing how we grow vegetables and grains, but also how we generate protein and meat. The new cultured meat industry is rapidly expanding, led by startups such as Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, JUST Meat, Inc. and Finless Foods, and backed by heavyweight investors including DFJ, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, and Tyson Foods.

Cultured meat is grown in a bioreactor using cells from an animal, a scaffold, and a culture. The process is humane and, potentially, scientists can make the meat healthier by adding vitamins, removing fat, or customizing it to an individual’s diet and health concerns. Another benefit is that cultured meats, if grown at scale, would dramatically reduce environmental destruction, pollution, and climate change caused by the livestock and fishing industries. Similar to vertical farms, cultured meat is produced using technology and can be grown anywhere, on-demand and in a decentralized way.

Similar to robotic farming equipment, bioreactors will also follow exponential trends, rapidly falling in cost. In fact, the first cultured meat hamburger (created by Singularity University faculty Member Mark Post of Mosa Meats in 2013) cost $350,000 dollars. In 2018, Fast Company reported the cost was now about $11 per burger, and the Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies predicted they will produce beef at about $2 per pound in 2020, which will be competitive with existing prices. For those who have turkey on their mind, one can read about New Harvest’s work (one of the leading think tanks and research centers for the cultured meat and cellular agriculture industry) in funding efforts to generate a nugget of cultured turkey meat.

One outstanding question is whether cultured meat is safe to eat and how it will interact with the overall food supply chain. In the US, regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working out their roles in this process, with the FDA overseeing the cellular process and the FDA overseeing production and labeling.

Food Processing
Tech companies are also making great headway in streamlining food processing. Norwegian company Tomra Foods was an early leader in using imaging recognition, sensors, artificial intelligence, and analytics to more efficiently sort food based on shape, composition of fat, protein, and moisture, and other food safety and quality indicators. Their technologies have improved food yield by 5-10 percent, which is significant given they own 25 percent of their market.

These advances are also not limited to large food companies. In 2016 Google reported how a small family farm in Japan built a world-class cucumber sorting device using their open-source machine learning tool TensorFlow. SU startup Impact Vision uses hyper-spectral imaging to analyze food quality, which increases revenues and reduces food waste and product recalls from contamination.

These examples point to a question many have on their mind: will we live in a future where a few large companies use advanced technologies to grow the majority of food on the planet, or will the falling costs of these technologies allow family farms, startups, and smaller players to take part in creating a decentralized system? Currently, the future could flow either way, but it is important for smaller companies to take advantage of the most cutting-edge technology in order to stay competitive.

Food Purchasing and Delivery
In the last year, we have also seen a number of new developments in technology improving access to food. Amazon Go is opening grocery stores in Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago where customers use an app that allows them to pick up their products and pay without going through cashier lines. Sam’s Club is not far behind, with an app that also allows a customer to purchase goods in-store.

The market for food delivery is also growing. In 2017, Morgan Stanley estimated that the online food delivery market from restaurants could grow to $32 billion by 2021, from $12 billion in 2017. Companies like Zume are pioneering robot-powered pizza making and delivery. In addition to using robotics to create affordable high-end gourmet pizzas in their shop, they also have a pizza delivery truck that can assemble and cook pizzas while driving. Their system combines predictive analytics using past customer data to prepare pizzas for certain neighborhoods before the orders even come in. In early November 2018, the Wall Street Journal estimated that Zume is valued at up to $2.25 billion.

Looking Ahead
While each of these developments is promising on its own, it’s also important to note that since all these technologies are in some way digitized and connected to the internet, the various food tech players can collaborate. In theory, self-driving delivery restaurants could share data on what they are selling to their automated farm equipment, facilitating coordination of future crops. There is a tremendous opportunity to improve efficiency, lower costs, and create an abundance of healthy, sustainable food for all.

On the other hand, these technologies are also deeply disruptive. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, in 2010 about one billion people, or a third of the world’s workforce, worked in the farming and agricultural industries. We need to ensure these farmers are linked to new job opportunities, as well as facilitate collaboration between existing farming companies and technologists so that the industries can continue to grow and lead rather than be displaced.

Just as importantly, each of us might think about how these changes in the food industry might impact our own ways of life and culture. Thanksgiving celebrates community and sharing of food during a time of scarcity. Technology will help create an abundance of food and less need for communities to depend on one another. What are the ways that you will create community, sharing, and culture in this new world?

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#433524 Japanese “Singing” Robot

The Japanese HRP-4C Humanoid Robot can “sing” – and not too shabby either. 🙂 Related Posts Quantum Computing Progress Will Speed Up …In the quest for ever more powerful computers, … iCub Humanoid Platform for RobotCubThe iCub platform was developed … Continue reading

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#433682 Video Friday: Japan’s New Humanoid ...

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#433668 A Decade of Commercial Space ...

In many industries, a decade is barely enough time to cause dramatic change unless something disruptive comes along—a new technology, business model, or service design. The space industry has recently been enjoying all three.

But 10 years ago, none of those innovations were guaranteed. In fact, on Sept. 28, 2008, an entire company watched and hoped as their flagship product attempted a final launch after three failures. With cash running low, this was the last shot. Over 21,000 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen ignited and powered two booster stages off the launchpad.

This first official picture of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I was issued in Moscow Oct. 9, 1957. The satellite measured 1 foot, 11 inches and weighed 184 pounds. The Space Age began as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit, on Oct. 4, 1957.AP Photo/TASS
When that Falcon 1 rocket successfully reached orbit and the company secured a subsequent contract with NASA, SpaceX had survived its ‘startup dip’. That milestone, the first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, ignited a new space industry that is changing our world, on this planet and beyond. What has happened in the intervening years, and what does it mean going forward?

While scientists are busy developing new technologies that address the countless technical problems of space, there is another segment of researchers, including myself, studying the business angle and the operations issues facing this new industry. In a recent paper, my colleague Christopher Tang and I investigate the questions firms need to answer in order to create a sustainable space industry and make it possible for humans to establish extraterrestrial bases, mine asteroids and extend space travel—all while governments play an increasingly smaller role in funding space enterprises. We believe these business solutions may hold the less-glamorous key to unlocking the galaxy.

The New Global Space Industry
When the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik program, putting a satellite in orbit in 1957, they kicked off a race to space fueled by international competition and Cold War fears. The Soviet Union and the United States played the primary roles, stringing together a series of “firsts” for the record books. The first chapter of the space race culminated with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic Apollo 11 moon landing which required massive public investment, on the order of US$25.4 billion, almost $200 billion in today’s dollars.

Competition characterized this early portion of space history. Eventually, that evolved into collaboration, with the International Space Station being a stellar example, as governments worked toward shared goals. Now, we’ve entered a new phase—openness—with private, commercial companies leading the way.

The industry for spacecraft and satellite launches is becoming more commercialized, due, in part, to shrinking government budgets. According to a report from the investment firm Space Angels, a record 120 venture capital firms invested over $3.9 billion in private space enterprises last year. The space industry is also becoming global, no longer dominated by the Cold War rivals, the United States and USSR.

In 2018 to date, there have been 72 orbital launches, an average of two per week, from launch pads in China, Russia, India, Japan, French Guinea, New Zealand, and the US.

The uptick in orbital launches of actual rockets as well as spacecraft launches, which includes satellites and probes launched from space, coincides with this openness over the past decade.

More governments, firms and even amateurs engage in various spacecraft launches than ever before. With more entities involved, innovation has flourished. As Roberson notes in Digital Trends, “Private, commercial spaceflight. Even lunar exploration, mining, and colonization—it’s suddenly all on the table, making the race for space today more vital than it has felt in years.”

Worldwide launches into space. Orbital launches include manned and unmanned spaceships launched into orbital flight from Earth. Spacecraft launches include all vehicles such as spaceships, satellites and probes launched from Earth or space. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in space, Decision Sciences; Space Launch Report (Kyle 2017); Spacecraft Encyclopedia (Lafleur 2017), CC BY-ND

One can see this vitality plainly in the news. On Sept. 21, Japan announced that two of its unmanned rovers, dubbed Minerva-II-1, had landed on a small, distant asteroid. For perspective, the scale of this landing is similar to hitting a 6-centimeter target from 20,000 kilometers away. And earlier this year, people around the world watched in awe as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched and, more impressively, returned its two boosters to a landing pad in a synchronized ballet of epic proportions.

Challenges and Opportunities
Amidst the growth of capital, firms, and knowledge, both researchers and practitioners must figure out how entities should manage their daily operations, organize their supply chain, and develop sustainable operations in space. This is complicated by the hurdles space poses: distance, gravity, inhospitable environments, and information scarcity.

One of the greatest challenges involves actually getting the things people want in space, into space. Manufacturing everything on Earth and then launching it with rockets is expensive and restrictive. A company called Made In Space is taking a different approach by maintaining an additive manufacturing facility on the International Space Station and 3D printing right in space. Tools, spare parts, and medical devices for the crew can all be created on demand. The benefits include more flexibility and better inventory management on the space station. In addition, certain products can be produced better in space than on Earth, such as pure optical fiber.

How should companies determine the value of manufacturing in space? Where should capacity be built and how should it be scaled up? The figure below breaks up the origin and destination of goods between Earth and space and arranges products into quadrants. Humans have mastered the lower left quadrant, made on Earth—for use on Earth. Moving clockwise from there, each quadrant introduces new challenges, for which we have less and less expertise.

A framework of Earth-space operations. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in Space, Decision Sciences, CC BY-ND
I first became interested in this particular problem as I listened to a panel of robotics experts discuss building a colony on Mars (in our third quadrant). You can’t build the structures on Earth and easily send them to Mars, so you must manufacture there. But putting human builders in that extreme environment is equally problematic. Essentially, an entirely new mode of production using robots and automation in an advance envoy may be required.

Resources in Space
You might wonder where one gets the materials for manufacturing in space, but there is actually an abundance of resources: Metals for manufacturing can be found within asteroids, water for rocket fuel is frozen as ice on planets and moons, and rare elements like helium-3 for energy are embedded in the crust of the moon. If we brought that particular isotope back to Earth, we could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

As demonstrated by the recent Minerva-II-1 asteroid landing, people are acquiring the technical know-how to locate and navigate to these materials. But extraction and transport are open questions.

How do these cases change the economics in the space industry? Already, companies like Planetary Resources, Moon Express, Deep Space Industries, and Asterank are organizing to address these opportunities. And scholars are beginning to outline how to navigate questions of property rights, exploitation and partnerships.

Threats From Space Junk
A computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95 percent of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris – not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item. The orbital debris dots are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. NASA
The movie “Gravity” opens with a Russian satellite exploding, which sets off a chain reaction of destruction thanks to debris hitting a space shuttle, the Hubble telescope, and part of the International Space Station. The sequence, while not perfectly plausible as written, is a very real phenomenon. In fact, in 2013, a Russian satellite disintegrated when it was hit with fragments from a Chinese satellite that exploded in 2007. Known as the Kessler effect, the danger from the 500,000-plus pieces of space debris has already gotten some attention in public policy circles. How should one prevent, reduce or mitigate this risk? Quantifying the environmental impact of the space industry and addressing sustainable operations is still to come.

NASA scientist Mark Matney is seen through a fist-sized hole in a 3-inch thick piece of aluminum at Johnson Space Center’s orbital debris program lab. The hole was created by a thumb-size piece of material hitting the metal at very high speed simulating possible damage from space junk. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
What’s Next?
It’s true that space is becoming just another place to do business. There are companies that will handle the logistics of getting your destined-for-space module on board a rocket; there are companies that will fly those rockets to the International Space Station; and there are others that can make a replacement part once there.

What comes next? In one sense, it’s anybody’s guess, but all signs point to this new industry forging ahead. A new breakthrough could alter the speed, but the course seems set: exploring farther away from home, whether that’s the moon, asteroids, or Mars. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, SpaceX launches were yet to be successful. Today, a vibrant private sector consists of scores of companies working on everything from commercial spacecraft and rocket propulsion to space mining and food production. The next step is working to solidify the business practices and mature the industry.

Standing in a large hall at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the White House Frontiers Conference, I see the future. Wrapped around my head are state-of-the-art virtual reality goggles. I’m looking at the surface of Mars. Every detail is immediate and crisp. This is not just a video game or an aimless exercise. The scientific community has poured resources into such efforts because exploration is preceded by information. And who knows, maybe 10 years from now, someone will be standing on the actual surface of Mars.

Image Credit: SpaceX

Joel Wooten, Assistant Professor of Management Science, University of South Carolina

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