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Picture a robot. In all likelihood, you just pictured a sleek metallic or chrome-white humanoid. Yet the vast majority of robots in the world around us are nothing like this; instead, they’re specialized for specific tasks. Our cultural conception of what robots are dates back to the coining of the term robots in the Czech play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which originally envisioned them as essentially synthetic humans.
The vision of a humanoid robot is tantalizing. There are constant efforts to create something that looks like the robots of science fiction. Recently, an old competitor in this field returned with a new model: Toyota has released what they call the T-HR3. As humanoid robots go, it appears to be pretty dexterous and have a decent grip, with a number of degrees of freedom making the movements pleasantly human.
This humanoid robot operates mostly via a remote-controlled system that allows the user to control the robot’s limbs by exerting different amounts of pressure on a framework. A VR headset completes the picture, allowing the user to control the robot’s body and teleoperate the machine. There’s no word on a price tag, but one imagines a machine with a control system this complicated won’t exactly be on your Christmas list, unless you’re a billionaire.
Toyota is no stranger to robotics. They released a series of “Partner Robots” that had a bizarre affinity for instrument-playing but weren’t often seen doing much else. Given that they didn’t seem to have much capability beyond the automaton that Leonardo da Vinci made hundreds of years ago, they promptly vanished. If, as the name suggests, the T-HR3 is a sequel to these robots, which came out shortly after ASIMO back in 2003, it’s substantially better.
Slightly less humanoid (and perhaps the more useful for it), Toyota’s HSR-2 is a robot base on wheels with a simple mechanical arm. It brings to mind earlier machines produced by dream-factory startup Willow Garage like the PR-2. The idea of an affordable robot that could simply move around on wheels and pick up and fetch objects, and didn’t harbor too-lofty ambitions to do anything else, was quite successful.
So much so that when Robocup, the international robotics competition, looked for a platform for their robot-butler competition @Home, they chose HSR-2 for its ability to handle objects. HSR-2 has been deployed in trial runs to care for the elderly and injured, but has yet to be widely adopted for these purposes five years after its initial release. It’s telling that arguably the most successful multi-purpose humanoid robot isn’t really humanoid at all—and it’s curious that Toyota now seems to want to return to a more humanoid model a decade after they gave up on the project.
What’s unclear, as is often the case with humanoid robots, is what, precisely, the T-HR3 is actually for. The teleoperation gets around the complex problem of control by simply having the machine controlled remotely by a human. That human then handles all the sensory perception, decision-making, planning, and manipulation; essentially, the hardest problems in robotics.
There may not be a great deal of autonomy for the T-HR3, but by sacrificing autonomy, you drastically cut down the uses of the robot. Since it can’t act alone, you need a convincing scenario where you need a teleoperated humanoid robot that’s less precise and vastly more expensive than just getting a person to do the same job. Perhaps someday more autonomy will be developed for the robot, and the master maneuvering system that allows humans to control it will only be used in emergencies to control the robot if it gets stuck.
Toyota’s press release says it is “a platform with capabilities that can safely assist humans in a variety of settings, such as the home, medical facilities, construction sites, disaster-stricken areas and even outer space.” In reality, it’s difficult to see such a robot being affordable or even that useful in the home or in medical facilities (unless it’s substantially stronger than humans). Equally, it certainly doesn’t seem robust enough to be deployed in disaster zones or outer space. These tasks have been mooted for robots for a very long time and few have proved up to the challenge.
Toyota’s third generation humanoid robot, the T-HR3. Image Credit: Toyota
Instead, the robot seems designed to work alongside humans. Its design, standing 1.5 meters tall, weighing 75 kilograms, and possessing 32 degrees of freedom in its body, suggests it is built to closely mimic a person, rather than a robot like ATLAS which is robust enough that you can imagine it being useful in a war zone. In this case, it might be closer to the model of the collaborative robots or co-bots developed by Rethink Robotics, whose tons of safety features, including force-sensitive feedback for the user, reduce the risk of terrible PR surrounding killer robots.
Instead the emphasis is on graceful precision engineering: in the promo video, the robot can be seen balancing on one leg before showing off a few poised, yoga-like poses. This perhaps suggests that an application in elderly care, which Toyota has ventured into before and which was the stated aim of their simple HSR-2, might be more likely than deployment to a disaster zone.
The reason humanoid robots remain so elusive and so tempting is probably because of a simple cognitive mistake. We make two bad assumptions. First, we assume that if you build a humanoid robot, give its joints enough flexibility, throw in a little AI and perhaps some pre-programmed behaviors, then presto, it will be able to do everything humans can. When you see a robot that moves well and looks humanoid, it seems like the hardest part is done; surely this robot could do anything. The reality is never so simple.
We also make the reverse assumption: we assume that when we are finally replaced, it will be by perfect replicas of our own bodies and brains that can fulfill all the functions we used to fulfill. Perhaps, in reality, the future of robots and AI is more like its present: piecemeal, with specialized algorithms and specialized machines gradually learning to outperform humans at every conceivable task without ever looking convincingly human.
It may well be that the T-HR3 is angling towards this concept of machine learning as a platform for future research. Rather than trying to program an omni-capable robot out of the box, it will gradually learn from its human controllers. In this way, you could see the platform being used to explore the limits of what humans can teach robots to do simply by having them mimic sequences of our bodies’ motion, in the same way the exploitation of neural networks is testing the limits of training algorithms on data. No one machine will be able to perform everything a human can, but collectively, they will vastly outperform us at anything you’d want one to do.
So when you see a new android like Toyota’s, feel free to marvel at its technical abilities and indulge in the speculation about whether it’s a PR gimmick or a revolutionary step forward along the road to human replacement. Just remember that, human-level bots or not, we’re already strolling down that road.
Image Credit: Toyota Continue reading
Robots are a hot item and Radboud University is right on trend by using them to replicate babies' brain and behaviour. Johan Kwisthout, coordinator of the Master's programme in Artificial Intelligence, explains how this works and what else we can expect from robots. Continue reading
Each week we scour the web for great articles and fascinating advances across our core topics, from AI to biotech and the brain. But robots have a special place in our hearts. This week, we took a look back at 2017 so far and unearthed a few favorite robots for your reading and viewing pleasure.
Tarzan the Swinging Robot Could Be the Future of FarmingMariella Moon | Engadget“Tarzan will be able to swing over crops using its 3D-printed claws and parallel guy-wires stretched over fields. It will then take measurements and pictures of each plant with its built-in camera while suspended…While it may take some time to achieve that goal, the researchers plan to start testing the robot soon.”
Grasping Robots Compete to Rule Amazon’s Warehouses Tom Simonite | Wired“Robots able to help with so-called picking tasks would boost Amazon’s efficiency—and make it much less reliant on human workers. It’s why the company has invited a motley crew of mechanical arms, grippers, suction cups—and their human handlers—to Nagoya, Japan, this week to show off their manipulation skills.”
Robots Learn to Speak Body LanguageAlyssa Pagano | IEEE Spectrum“One notable feature of the OpenPose system is that it can track not only a person’s head, torso, and limbs but also individual fingers. To do that, the researchers used CMU’s Panoptic Studio, a dome lined with 500 cameras, where they captured body poses at a variety of angles and then used those images to build a data set.”
I Watched Two Robots Chat Together on Stage at a Tech EventJon Russell | TechCrunch“The robots in question are Sophia and Han, and they belong to Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong-based company that is developing and deploying artificial intelligence in humanoids. The duo took to the stage at Rise in Hong Kong with Hanson Robotics’ Chief Scientist Ben Goertzel directing the banter. The conversation, which was partially scripted, wasn’t as slick as the human-to-human panels at the show, but it was certainly a sight to behold for the packed audience.”
How This Japanese Robotics Master Is Building Better, More Human AndroidsHarry McCracken | Fast Company“On the tech side, making a robot look and behave like a person involves everything from electronics to the silicone Ishiguro’s team uses to simulate skin. ‘We have a technology to precisely control pneumatic actuators,’ he says, noting, as an example of what they need to re-create, that ‘the human shoulder has four degrees of freedom.’”
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Spherical Induction Motor Eliminates Robot’s Mechanical Drive System
PITTSBURGH— More than a decade ago, Ralph Hollis invented the ballbot, an elegantly simple robot whose tall, thin body glides atop a sphere slightly smaller than a bowling ball. The latest version, called SIMbot, has an equally elegant motor with just one moving part: the ball.
The only other active moving part of the robot is the body itself.
The spherical induction motor (SIM) invented by Hollis, a research professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, and Masaaki Kumagai, a professor of engineering at Tohoku Gakuin University in Tagajo, Japan, eliminates the mechanical drive systems that each used on previous ballbots. Because of this extreme mechanical simplicity, SIMbot requires less routine maintenance and is less likely to suffer mechanical failures.
The new motor can move the ball in any direction using only electronic controls. These movements keep SIMbot’s body balanced atop the ball.
Early comparisons between SIMbot and a mechanically driven ballbot suggest the new robot is capable of similar speed — about 1.9 meters per second, or the equivalent of a very fast walk — but is not yet as efficient, said Greg Seyfarth, a former member of Hollis’ lab who recently completed his master’s degree in robotics.
Induction motors are nothing new; they use magnetic fields to induce electric current in the motor’s rotor, rather than through an electrical connection. What is new here is that the rotor is spherical and, thanks to some fancy math and advanced software, can move in any combination of three axes, giving it omnidirectional capability. In contrast to other attempts to build a SIM, the design by Hollis and Kumagai enables the ball to turn all the way around, not just move back and forth a few degrees.
Though Hollis said it is too soon to compare the cost of the experimental motor with conventional motors, he said long-range trends favor the technologies at its heart.
“This motor relies on a lot of electronics and software,” he explained. “Electronics and software are getting cheaper. Mechanical systems are not getting cheaper, or at least not as fast as electronics and software are.”
SIMbot’s mechanical simplicity is a significant advance for ballbots, a type of robot that Hollis maintains is ideally suited for working with people in human environments. Because the robot’s body dynamically balances atop the motor’s ball, a ballbot can be as tall as a person, but remain thin enough to move through doorways and in between furniture. This type of robot is inherently compliant, so people can simply push it out of the way when necessary. Ballbots also can perform tasks such as helping a person out of a chair, helping to carry parcels and physically guiding a person.
Until now, moving the ball to maintain the robot’s balance has relied on mechanical means. Hollis’ ballbots, for instance, have used an “inverse mouse ball” method, in which four motors actuate rollers that press against the ball so that it can move in any direction across a floor, while a fifth motor controls the yaw motion of the robot itself.
“But the belts that drive the rollers wear out and need to be replaced,” said Michael Shomin, a Ph.D. student in robotics. “And when the belts are replaced, the system needs to be recalibrated.” He said the new motor’s solid-state system would eliminate that time-consuming process.
The rotor of the spherical induction motor is a precisely machined hollow iron ball with a copper shell. Current is induced in the ball with six laminated steel stators, each with three-phase wire windings. The stators are positioned just next to the ball and are oriented slightly off vertical.
The six stators generate travelling magnetic waves in the ball, causing the ball to move in the direction of the wave. The direction of the magnetic waves can be steered by altering the currents in the stators.
Hollis and Kumagai jointly designed the motor. Ankit Bhatia, a Ph.D. student in robotics, and Olaf Sassnick, a visiting scientist from Salzburg University of Applied Sciences, adapted it for use in ballbots.
Getting rid of the mechanical drive eliminates a lot of the friction of previous ballbot models, but virtually all friction could be eliminated by eventually installing an air bearing, Hollis said. The robot body would then be separated from the motor ball with a cushion of air, rather than passive rollers.
“Even without optimizing the motor’s performance, SIMbot has demonstrated impressive performance,” Hollis said. “We expect SIMbot technology will make ballbots more accessible and more practical for wide adoption.”
The National Science Foundation and, in Japan, Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (KAKENHI) supported this research. A report on the work was presented at the May IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm, Sweden.
Video by: Carnegie Mellon University
About Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon (www.cmu.edu) is a private, internationally ranked research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the arts. More than 13,000 students in the university’s seven schools and colleges benefit from a small student-to-faculty ratio and an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation.
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412-268-9068 October 4, 2016
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