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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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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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