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A remarkable combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology has produced the world’s first “living robots.”
This week, a research team of roboticists and scientists published their recipe for making a new lifeform called xenobots from stem cells. The term “xeno” comes from the frog cells (Xenopus laevis) used to make them.
One of the researchers described the creation as “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal,” but a “new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
Xenobots are less than 1 millimeter long and made of 500-1,000 living cells. They have various simple shapes, including some with squat “legs.” They can propel themselves in linear or circular directions, join together to act collectively, and move small objects. Using their own cellular energy, they can live up to 10 days.
While these “reconfigurable biomachines” could vastly improve human, animal, and environmental health, they raise legal and ethical concerns.
Strange New ‘Creature’
To make xenobots, the research team used a supercomputer to test thousands of random designs of simple living things that could perform certain tasks.
The computer was programmed with an AI “evolutionary algorithm” to predict which organisms would likely display useful tasks, such as moving towards a target.
After the selection of the most promising designs, the scientists attempted to replicate the virtual models with frog skin or heart cells, which were manually joined using microsurgery tools. The heart cells in these bespoke assemblies contract and relax, giving the organisms motion.
The creation of xenobots is groundbreaking. Despite being described as “programmable living robots,” they are actually completely organic and made of living tissue. The term “robot” has been used because xenobots can be configured into different forms and shapes, and “programmed” to target certain objects, which they then unwittingly seek. They can also repair themselves after being damaged.
Xenobots may have great value. Some speculate they could be used to clean our polluted oceans by collecting microplastics. Similarly, they may be used to enter confined or dangerous areas to scavenge toxins or radioactive materials. Xenobots designed with carefully shaped “pouches” might be able to carry drugs into human bodies.
Future versions may be built from a patient’s own cells to repair tissue or target cancers. Being biodegradable, xenobots would have an edge on technologies made of plastic or metal.
Further development of biological “robots” could accelerate our understanding of living and robotic systems. Life is incredibly complex, so manipulating living things could reveal some of life’s mysteries—and improve our use of AI.
Legal and Ethical Questions
Conversely, xenobots raise legal and ethical concerns. In the same way they could help target cancers, they could also be used to hijack life functions for malevolent purposes.
Some argue artificially making living things is unnatural, hubristic, or involves “playing God.” A more compelling concern is that of unintended or malicious use, as we have seen with technologies in fields including nuclear physics, chemistry, biology and AI. For instance, xenobots might be used for hostile biological purposes prohibited under international law.
More advanced future xenobots, especially ones that live longer and reproduce, could potentially “malfunction” and go rogue, and out-compete other species.
For complex tasks, xenobots may need sensory and nervous systems, possibly resulting in their sentience. A sentient programmed organism would raise additional ethical questions. Last year, the revival of a disembodied pig brain elicited concerns about different species’ suffering.
The xenobot’s creators have rightly acknowledged the need for discussion around the ethics of their creation. The 2018 scandal over using CRISPR (which allows the introduction of genes into an organism) may provide an instructive lesson here. While the experiment’s goal was to reduce the susceptibility of twin baby girls to HIV-AIDS, associated risks caused ethical dismay. The scientist in question is in prison.
When CRISPR became widely available, some experts called for a moratorium on heritable genome editing. Others argued the benefits outweighed the risks.
While each new technology should be considered impartially and based on its merits, giving life to xenobots raises certain significant questions:
Should xenobots have biological kill-switches in case they go rogue?
Who should decide who can access and control them?
What if “homemade” xenobots become possible? Should there be a moratorium until regulatory frameworks are established? How much regulation is required?
Lessons learned in the past from advances in other areas of science could help manage future risks, while reaping the possible benefits.
Long Road Here, Long Road Ahead
The creation of xenobots had various biological and robotic precedents. Genetic engineering has created genetically modified mice that become fluorescent in UV light.
Designer microbes can produce drugs and food ingredients that may eventually replace animal agriculture. In 2012, scientists created an artificial jellyfish called a “medusoid” from rat cells.
Robotics is also flourishing. Nanobots can monitor people’s blood sugar levels and may eventually be able to clear clogged arteries. Robots can incorporate living matter, which we witnessed when engineers and biologists created a sting-ray robot powered by light-activated cells.
In the coming years, we are sure to see more creations like xenobots that evoke both wonder and due concern. And when we do, it is important we remain both open-minded and critical.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Image Credit: Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash Continue reading →
The list of things robots can do seems to be growing by the week. They can play sports, help us explore outer space and the deep sea, take over some of our boring everyday tasks, and even assemble Ikea furniture.
Now they can add one more accomplishment to the list: grilling and serving a hot dog.
It seems like a pretty straightforward task, and as far as grilling goes, hot dogs are about as easy as it gets (along with, maybe, burgers? Hot dogs require more rotation, but it’s easier to tell when they’re done since they’re lighter in color).
Let’s paint a picture: you’re manning the grill at your family’s annual Fourth of July celebration. You’ve got a 10-pack of plump, juicy beef franks and a hungry crowd of relatives whose food-to-alcohol ratio is getting pretty skewed—they need some solid calories, pronto. What are the steps you need to take to get those franks from package to plate?
Each one needs to be placed on the grill, rotated every couple minutes for even cooking, removed from the grill when you deem it’s done, then—if you’re the kind of guy or gal who goes the extra mile—placed in a bun and dressed with ketchup, mustard, pickles, and the like before being handed over to salivating, too-loud Uncle Hector or sweet, bored Cousin Margaret.
While carrying out your grillmaster duties, you know better than to drop the hot dogs on the ground, leave them cooking on one side for too long, squeeze them to the point of breaking or bursting, and any other hot-dog-ruining amateur moves.
But for a robot, that’s a lot to figure out, especially if they have no prior knowledge of grilling hot dogs (which, well, most robots don’t).
As described in a paper published in this week’s Science Robotics, a team from Boston University programmed two robotic arms to use reinforcement learning—a branch of machine learning in which software gathers information about its environment then learns from it by replaying its experiences and incorporating rewards—to cook and serve hot dogs.
The team used a set of formulas to specify and combine tasks (“pick up hot dog and place on the grill”), meet safety requirements (“always avoid collisions”), and incorporate general prior knowledge (“you cannot pick up another hot dog if you are already holding one”).
Baxter and Jaco—as the two robots were dubbed—were trained through computer simulations. The paper’s authors emphasized their use of what they call a “formal specification language” for training the software, with the aim of generating easily-interpretable task descriptions. In reinforcement learning, they explain, being able to understand how a reward function influences an AI’s learning process is a key component in understanding the system’s behavior—but most systems lack this quality, and are thus likely to be lumped into the ‘black box’ of AI.
The robots’ decisions throughout the hot dog prep process—when to turn a hot dog, when to take it off the grill, and so on—are, the authors write, “easily interpretable from the beginning because the language is very similar to plain English.”
Besides being a step towards more explainable AI systems, Baxter and Jaco are another example of fast-food robots—following in the footsteps of their burger and pizza counterparts—that may take over some repetitive manual tasks currently performed by human workers. As robots’ capabilities improve through incremental progress like this, they’ll be able to take on additional tasks.
In a not-so-distant future, then, you just may find yourself throwing back drinks with Uncle Hector and Cousin Margaret while your robotic replacement mans the grill, churning out hot dogs that are perfectly cooked every time.
Image Credit: Image by Muhammad Ribkhan from Pixabay Continue reading →
Our personalities impact almost everything we do, from the career path we choose to the way we interact with others to how we spend our free time.
But what about the way we drive—could personality be used to predict whether a driver will cut someone off, speed, or, say, zoom through a yellow light instead of braking?
There must be something to the idea that those of us who are more mild-mannered are likely to drive a little differently than the more assertive among us. At least, that’s what a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is betting on.
“Working with and around humans means figuring out their intentions to better understand their behavior,” said graduate student Wilko Schwarting, lead author on the paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “People’s tendencies to be collaborative or competitive often spills over into how they behave as drivers. In this paper we sought to understand if this was something we could actually quantify.”
The team is building a model that classifies drivers according to how selfish or selfless they are, then uses that classification to help predict how drivers will behave on the road. Ideally, the system will help improve safety for self-driving cars by integrating a degree of ‘humanity’ into how their software perceives its surroundings; right now, human drivers and their cars are just another object, not much different than a tree or a sign.
But unlike trees and signs, humans have behavioral patterns and motivations. For greater success on roads that are still dominated by us mercurial humans, the CSAIL team believes, driverless cars should take our personalities into account.
How Selfish Are You?
About how important is your own well-being to you vs. the well-being of other people? It’s a hard question to answer without specifying who the other people are; your answer would likely differ if we’re talking about your friends, loved ones, strangers, or people you actively dislike.
In social psychology, social value orientation (SVO) refers to people’s preferences for allocating resources between themselves and others. The two broad categories people can fall into are pro-social (people who are more cooperative, and expect cooperation from others) and pro-self (pretty self-explanatory: “Me first!”).
Based on drivers’ behavior in two different road scenarios—merging and making a left turn—the CSAIL team’s model classified drivers as pro-social or egoistic. Slowing down to let someone merge into your lane in front of you would earn you a pro-social classification, while cutting someone off or not slowing down to allow a left turn would make you egoistic.
On the Road
The system then uses these classifications to model and predict drivers’ behavior. The team demonstrated that using their model, errors in predicting the behavior of other cars were reduced by 25 percent.
In a left-turn simulation, for example, their car would wait when an approaching car had an egoistic driver, but go ahead and make the turn when the other driver was prosocial. Similarly, if a self-driving car is trying to merge into the left lane and it’s identified the drivers in that lane as egoistic, it will assume they won’t slow down to let it in, and will wait to merge behind them. If, on the other hand, the self-driving car knows that the human drivers in the left lane are prosocial, it will attempt to merge between them since they’re likely to let it in.
So how does this all translate to better safety?
It’s essentially a starting point for imbuing driverless cars with some of the abilities and instincts that are innate to humans. If you’re driving down the highway and you see a car swerving outside its lane, you’ll probably distance yourself from that car because you know it’s more likely to cause an accident. Our senses take in information we can immediately interpret and act on, and this includes predictions about what might happen based on observations of what just happened. Our observations can clue us in to a driver’s personality (the swerver must be careless) or simply to the circumstances of a given moment (the swerver was texting).
But right now, self-driving cars assume all human drivers behave the same way, and they have no mechanism for incorporating observations about behavioral differences between drivers into their decisions.
“Creating more human-like behavior in autonomous vehicles (AVs) is fundamental for the safety of passengers and surrounding vehicles, since behaving in a predictable manner enables humans to understand and appropriately respond to the AV’s actions,” said Schwarting.
Though it may feel a bit unsettling to think of an algorithm lumping you into a category and driving accordingly around you, maybe it’s less unsettling than thinking of self-driving cars as pre-programmed, oblivious robots unable to adapt to different driving styles.
The team’s next step is to apply their model to pedestrians, bikes, and other agents frequently found in driving environments. They also plan to look into other robotic systems acting among people, like household robots, and integrating social value orientation into their algorithms.
Image Credit: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay Continue reading →
This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.
Autonomous robots are coming around slowly. We already got autonomous vacuum cleaners, autonomous lawn mowers, toys that bleep and blink, and (maybe) soon autonomous cars. Yet, generation after generation, we keep waiting for the robots that we all know from movies and TV shows. Instead, businesses seem to get farther and farther away from the robots that are able to do a large variety of tasks using general-purpose, human anatomy-inspired hardware.
Although these are the droids we have been looking for, anything that came close, such as Willow Garage’s PR2 or Rethink Robotics’ Baxter has bitten the dust. With building a robotic company being particularly hard, compounding business risk with technological risk, the trend goes from selling robots to selling actual services like mowing your lawn, provide taxi rides, fulfilling retail orders, or picking strawberries by the pound. Unfortunately for fans of R2-D2 and C-3PO, these kind of business models emphasize specialized, room- or fridge-sized hardware that is optimized for one very specific task, but does not contribute to a general-purpose robotic platform.
We have actually seen something very similar in the personal computer (PC) industry. In the 1950s, even though computers could be as big as an entire room and were only available to a selected few, the public already had a good idea of what computers would look like. A long list of fictional computers started to populate mainstream entertainment during that time. In a 1962 New York Times article titled “Pocket Computer to Replace Shopping List,” visionary scientist John Mauchly stated that “there is no reason to suppose the average boy or girl cannot be master of a personal computer.”
In 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave us the “mother of all demos,” browsing hypertext on a graphical screen and a mouse, and other ideas that have become standard only decades later. Now that we have finally seen all of this, it might be helpful to examine what actually enabled the computing revolution to learn where robotics is really at and what we need to do next.
The parallels between computers and robots
In the 1970s, mainframes were about to be replaced by the emerging class of mini-computers, fridge-sized devices that cost less than US $25,000 ($165,000 in 2019 dollars). These computers did not use punch-cards, but could be programmed in Fortran and BASIC, dramatically expanding the ease with which potential applications could be created. Yet it was still unclear whether mini-computers could ever replace big mainframes in applications that require fast and efficient processing of large amounts of data, let alone enter every living room. This is very similar to the robotics industry right now, where large-scale factory robots (mainframes) that have existed since the 1960s are seeing competition from a growing industry of collaborative robots that can safely work next to humans and can easily be installed and programmed (minicomputers). As in the ’70s, applications for these devices that reach system prices comparable to that of a luxury car are quite limited, and it is hard to see how they could ever become a consumer product.
Yet, as in the computer industry, successful architectures are quickly being cloned, driving prices down, and entirely new approaches on how to construct or program robotic arms are sprouting left and right. Arm makers are joined by manufacturers of autonomous carts, robotic grippers, and sensors. These components can be combined, paving the way for standard general purpose platforms that follow the model of the IBM PC, which built a capable, open architecture relying as much on commodity parts as possible.
General purpose robotic systems have not been successful for similar reasons that general purpose, also known as “personal,” computers took decades to emerge. Mainframes were custom-built for each application, while typewriters got smarter and smarter, not really leaving room for general purpose computers in between. Indeed, given the cost of hardware and the relatively little abilities of today’s autonomous robots, it is almost always smarter to build a special purpose machine than trying to make a collaborative mobile manipulator smart.
A current example is e-commerce grocery fulfillment. The current trend is to reserve underutilized parts of a brick-and-mortar store for a micro-fulfillment center that stores goods in little crates with an automated retrieval system and a (human) picker. A number of startups like Alert Innovation, Fabric, Ocado Technology, TakeOff Technologies, and Tompkins Robotics, to just name a few, have raised hundreds of millions of venture capital recently to build mainframe equivalents of robotic fulfillment centers. This is in contrast with a robotic picker, which would drive through the aisles to restock and pick from shelves. Such a robotic store clerk would come much closer to our vision of a general purpose robot, but would require many copies of itself that crowd the aisles to churn out hundreds of orders per hour as a microwarehouse could. Although eventually more efficient, the margins in retail are already low and make it unlikely that this industry will produce the technological jump that we need to get friendly C-3POs manning the aisles.
Startups have raised hundreds of millions of venture capital recently to build mainframe equivalents of robotic fulfillment centers. This is in contrast with a robotic picker, which would drive through the aisles to restock and pick from shelves, and would come much closer to our vision of a general purpose robot.
Mainframes were also attacked from the bottom. Fascination with the new digital technology has led to a hobbyist movement to create microcomputers that were sold via mail order or at RadioShack. Initially, a large number of small businesses was selling tens, at most hundreds, of devices, usually as a kit and with wooden enclosures. This trend culminated into the “1977 Trinity” in the form of the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the Tandy TRS-80, complete computers that were sold for prices around $2500 (TRS) to $5000 (Apple) in today’s dollars. The main application of these computers was their programmability (in BASIC), which would enable consumers to “learn to chart your biorhythms, balance your checking account, or even control your home environment,” according to an original Apple advertisement. Similarly, there exists a myriad of gadgets that explore different aspects of robotics such as mobility, manipulation, and entertainment.
As in the fledgling personal computing industry, the advertised functionality was at best a model of the real deal. A now-famous milestone in entertainment robotics was the original Sony’s Aibo, a robotic dog that was advertised to have many properties that a real dog has such as develop its own personality, play with a toy, and interact with its owner. Released in 1999, and re-launched in 2018, the platform has a solid following among hobbyists and academics who like its programmability, but probably only very few users who accept the device as a pet stand-in.
There also exist countless “build-your-own-robotic-arm” kits. One of the more successful examples is the uArm, which sells for around $800, and is advertised to perform pick and place, assembly, 3D printing, laser engraving, and many other things that sound like high value applications. Using compelling videos of the robot actually doing these things in a constrained environment has led to two successful crowd-funding campaigns, and have established the robot as a successful educational tool.
Finally, there exist platforms that allow hobbyist programmers to explore mobility to construct robots that patrol your house, deliver items, or provide their users with telepresence abilities. An example of that is the Misty II. Much like with the original Apple II, there remains a disconnect between the price of the hardware and the fidelity of the applications that were available.
For computers, this disconnect began to disappear with the invention of the first electronic spreadsheet software VisiCalc that spun out of Harvard in 1979 and prompted many people to buy an entire microcomputer just to run the program. VisiCalc was soon joined by WordStar, a word processing application, that sold for close to $2000 in today’s dollars. WordStar, too, would entice many people to buy the entire hardware just to use the software. The two programs are early examples of what became known as “killer application.”
With factory automation being mature, and robots with the price tag of a minicomputer being capable of driving around and autonomously carrying out many manipulation tasks, the robotics industry is somewhere where the PC industry was between 1973—the release of the Xerox Alto, the first computer with a graphical user interface, mouse, and special software—and 1979—when microcomputers in the under $5000 category began to take off.
Killer apps for robots
So what would it take for robotics to continue to advance like computers did? The market itself already has done a good job distilling what the possible killer apps are. VCs and customers alike push companies who have set out with lofty goals to reduce their offering to a simple value proposition. As a result, companies that started at opposite ends often converge to mirror images of each other that offer very similar autonomous carts, (bin) picking, palletizing, depalletizing, or sorting solutions. Each of these companies usually serves a single application to a single vertical—for example bin-picking clothes, transporting warehouse goods, or picking strawberries by the pound. They are trying to prove that their specific technology works without spreading themselves too thin.
Very few of these companies have really taken off. One example is Kiva Systems, which turned into the logistic robotics division of Amazon. Kiva and others are structured around sound value propositions that are grounded in well-known user needs. As these solutions are very specialized, however, it is unlikely that they result into any economies of scale of the same magnitude that early computer users who bought both a spreadsheet and a word processor application for their expensive minicomputer could enjoy. What would make these robotic solutions more interesting is when functionality becomes stackable. Instead of just being able to do bin picking, palletizing, and transportation with the same hardware, these three skills could be combined to model entire processes.
A skill that is yet little addressed by startups and is historically owned by the mainframe equivalent of robotics is assembly of simple mechatronic devices. The ability to assemble mechatronic parts is equivalent to other tasks such as changing a light bulb, changing the batteries in a remote control, or tending machines like a lever-based espresso machine. These tasks would involve the autonomous execution of complete workflows possible using a single machine, eventually leading to an explosion of industrial productivity across all sectors. For example, picking up an item from a bin, arranging it on the robot, moving it elsewhere, and placing it into a shelf or a machine is a process that equally applies to a manufacturing environment, a retail store, or someone’s kitchen.
Image: Robotic Materials Inc.
Autonomous, vision and force-based assembly of the
Siemens robot learning challenge.
Even though many of the above applications are becoming possible, it is still very hard to get a platform off the ground without added components that provide “killer app” value of their own. Interesting examples are Rethink Robotics or the Robot Operating System (ROS). Rethink Robotics’ Baxter and Sawyer robots pioneered a great user experience (like the 1973 Xerox Alto, really the first PC), but its applications were difficult to extend beyond simple pick-and-place and palletizing and depalletizing items.
ROS pioneered interprocess communication software that was adapted to robotic needs (multiple computers, different programming languages) and the idea of software modularity in robotics, but—in the absence of a common hardware platform—hasn’t yet delivered a single application, e.g. for navigation, path planning, or grasping, that performs beyond research-grade demonstration level and won’t get discarded once developers turn to production systems. At the same time, an increasing number of robotic devices, such as robot arms or 3D perception systems that offer intelligent functionality, provide other ways to wire them together that do not require an intermediary computer, while keeping close control over the real-time aspects of their hardware.
Image: Robotic Materials Inc.
Robotic Materials GPR-1 combines a MIR-100 autonomous cart with an UR-5 collaborative robotic arm, an onRobot force/torque sensor and Robotic Materials’ SmartHand to perform out-of-the-box mobile assembly, bin picking, palletizing, and depalletizing tasks.
At my company, Robotic Materials Inc., we have made strides to identify a few applications such as bin picking and assembly, making them configurable with a single click by combining machine learning and optimization with an intuitive user interface. Here, users can define object classes and how to grasp them using a web browser, which then appear as first-class objects in a robot-specific graphical programming language. We have also done this for assembly, allowing users to stack perception-based picking and force-based assembly primitives by simply dragging and dropping appropriate commands together.
While such an approach might answer the question of a killer app for robots priced in the “minicomputer” range, it is unclear how killer app-type value can be generated with robots in the less-than-$5000 category. A possible answer is two-fold: First, with low-cost arms, mobility platforms, and entertainment devices continuously improving, a confluence of technology readiness and user innovation, like with the Apple II and VisiCalc, will eventually happen. For example, there is not much innovation needed to turn Misty into a home security system; the uArm into a low-cost bin-picking system; or an Aibo-like device into a therapeutic system for the elderly or children with autism.
Second, robots and their components have to become dramatically cheaper. Indeed, computers have seen an exponential reduction in price accompanied by an exponential increase in computational power, thanks in great part to Moore’s Law. This development has helped robotics too, allowing us to reach breakthroughs in mobility and manipulation due to the ability to process massive amounts of image and depth data in real-time, and we can expect it to continue to do so.
Is there a Moore’s Law for robots?
One might ask, however, how a similar dynamics might be possible for robots as a whole, including all their motors and gears, and what a “Moore’s Law” would look like for the robotics industry. Here, it helps to remember that the perpetuation of Moore’s Law is not the reason, but the result of the PC revolution. Indeed, the first killer apps for bookkeeping, editing, and gaming were so good that they unleashed tremendous consumer demand, beating the benchmark on what was thought to be physically possible over and over again. (I vividly remember 56 kbps to be the absolute maximum data rate for copper phone lines until DSL appeared.)
That these economies of scale are also applicable to mechatronics is impressively demonstrated by the car industry. A good example is the 2020 Prius Prime, a highly computerized plug-in hybrid, that is available for one third of the cost of my company’s GPR-1 mobile manipulator while being orders of magnitude more complex, sporting an electrical motor, a combustion engine, and a myriad of sensors and computers. It is therefore very well conceivable to produce a mobile manipulator that retails at one tenth of the cost of a modern car, once robotics enjoy similar mass-market appeal. Given that these robots are part of the equation, actively lowering cost of production, this might happen as fast as never before in the history of industrialization.
It is therefore very well conceivable to produce a mobile manipulator that retails at one tenth of the cost of a modern car, once robotics enjoy similar mass-market appeal.
There is one more driver that might make robots exponentially more capable: the cloud. Once a general purpose robot has learned or was programmed with a new skill, it could share it with every other robot. At some point, a grocer who buys a robot could assume that it already knows how to recognize and handle 99 percent of the retail items in the store. Likewise, a manufacturer can assume that the robot can handle and assemble every item available from McMaster-Carr and Misumi. Finally, families could expect a robot to know every kitchen item that Ikea and Pottery Barn is selling. Sounds like a labor intense problem, but probably more manageable than collecting footage for Google’s Street View using cars, tricycles, and snowmobiles, among other vehicles.
Strategies for robot startups
While we are waiting for these two trends—better and better applications and hardware with decreasing cost—to converge, we as a community have to keep exploring what the canonical robotic applications beyond mobility, bin picking, palletizing, depalletizing, and assembly are. We must also continue to solve the fundamental challenges that stand in the way of making these solutions truly general and robust.
For both questions, it might help to look at the strategies that have been critical in the development of the personal computer, which might equally well apply to robotics:
Start with a solution to a problem your customers have. Unfortunately, their problem is almost never that they need your sensor, widget, or piece of code, but something that already costs them money or negatively affects them in some other way. Example: There are many more people who had a problem calculating their taxes (and wanted to buy VisiCalc) than writing their own solution in BASIC.
Build as little of your own hardware as necessary. Your business model should be stronger than the margin you can make on the hardware. Why taking the risk? Example: Why build your own typewriter if you can write the best typewriting application that makes it worth buying a computer just for that?
If your goal is a platform, make sure it comes with a killer application, which alone justifies the platform cost. Example: Microcomputer companies came and went until the “1977 Trinity” intersected with the killer apps spreadsheet and word processors. Corollary: You can also get lucky.
Use an open architecture, which creates an ecosystem where others compete on creating better components and peripherals, while allowing others to integrate your solution into their vertical and stack it with other devices. Example: Both the Apple II and the IBM PC were completely open architectures, enabling many clones, thereby growing the user and developer base.
It’s worthwhile pursuing this. With most business processes already being digitized, general purpose robots will allow us to fill in gaps in mobility and manipulation, increasing productivity at levels only limited by the amount of resources and energy that are available, possibly creating a utopia in which creativity becomes the ultimate currency. Maybe we’ll even get R2-D2.
Nikolaus Correll is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he works on mobile manipulation and other robotics applications. He’s co-founder and CTO of Robotic Materials Inc., which is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology via their Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) programs. Continue reading →
The recent high profile failures of some home social robots (and the companies behind them) have made it even more challenging than it was before to develop robots in that space. And it was challenging enough to begin with—making a robot that can autonomous interact with random humans in their homes over a long period of time for a price that people can afford is extraordinarily difficult. However, the massive amount of initial interest in robots like Jibo, Kuri, Vector, and Buddy prove that people do want these things, or at least think they do, and while that’s the case, there’s incentive for other companies to give social home robots a try.
One of those companies is Zoetic, founded in 2107 by Mita Yun and Jitu Das, both ex-Googlers. Their robot, Kiki, is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot: It’s cute, white, roundish, has big eyes, promises that it will be your “robot sidekick,” and is not cheap: It’s on Kicksterter for $800. Kiki is among what appears to be a sort of tentative second wave of social home robots, where designers have (presumably) had a chance to take everything that they learned from the social home robot pioneers and use it to make things better this time around.
Kiki’s Kickstarter video is, again, more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot crowdfunding campaign:
We won’t get into all of the details on Kiki in this article (the Kickstarter page has tons of information), but a few distinguishing features:
Each Kiki will develop its own personality over time through its daily interactions with its owner, other people, and other Kikis.
Interacting with Kiki is more abstract than with most robots—it can understand some specific words and phrases, and will occasionally use a few specific words or two, but otherwise it’s mostly listening to your tone of voice and responding with sounds rather than speech.
Kiki doesn’t move on its own, but it can operate for up to two hours away from its charging dock.
Depending on how your treat Kiki, it can get depressed or neurotic. It also needs to be fed, which you can do by drawing different kinds of food in the app.
Everything Kiki does runs on-board the robot. It has Wi-Fi connectivity for updates, but doesn’t rely on the cloud for anything in real-time, meaning that your data stays on the robot and that the robot will continue to function even if its remote service shuts down.
It’s hard to say whether features like these are unique enough to help Kiki be successful where other social home robots haven’t been, so we spoke with Zoetic co-founder Mita Yun and asked her why she believes that Kiki is going to be the social home robot that makes it.
IEEE Spectrum: What’s your background?
Mita Yun: I was an only child growing up, and so I always wanted something like Doraemon or Totoro. Something that when you come home it’s there to greet you, not just because it’s programmed to do that but because it’s actually actively happy to see you, and only you. I was so interested in this that I went to study robotics at CMU and then after I graduated I joined Google and worked there for five years. I tended to go for the more risky and more fun projects, but they always got cancelled—the first project I joined was called Android at Home, and then I joined Google Glass, and then I joined a team called Robots for Kids. That project was building educational robots, and then I just realized that when we’re adding technology to something, to a product, we’re actually taking the life away somehow, and the kids were more connected with stuffed animals compared to the educational robots we were building. That project was also cancelled, and in 2017, I left with a coworker of mine (Jitu Das) to bring this dream into reality. And now we’re building Kiki.
“Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless”
—Mita Yun, Zoetic
You started working on Kiki in 2017, when things were already getting challenging for Jibo—why did you decide to start developing a social home robot at that point?
I thought Jibo was great. It had a special magical way of moving, and it was such a new idea that you could have this robot with embodiment and it can actually be your assistant. The problem with Jibo, in my opinion, was that it took too long to fulfill the orders. It took them three to four years to actually manufacture, because it was a very complex piece of hardware, and then during that period of time Alexa and Google Home came out, and they started selling these voice systems for $30 and then you have Jibo for $800. Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless.
Can you elaborate on “completely useless?”
I feel like people are initially connected with robots because they remind them of a character. And it’s the closest we can get to a character other than an organic character like an animal. So we’re connected to a character like when we have a robot in a mall that’s roaming around, even if it looks really ugly, like if it doesn’t have eyes, people still take selfies with it. Why? Because they think it’s a character. And humans are just hardwired to love characters and love stories. With Kiki, we just wanted to build a character that’s alive, we don’t want to have a character do anything super useful.
I understand why other robotics companies are adding Alexa integration to their robots, and I think that’s great. But the dream I had, and the understanding I have about robotics technology, is that for a consumer robot especially, it is very very difficult for the robot to justify its price through usefulness. And then there’s also research showing that the more useless something is, the easier it is to have an emotional connection, so that’s why we want to keep Kiki very useless.
What kind of character are you creating with Kiki?
The whole design principle around Kiki is we want to make it a very vulnerable character. In terms of its status at home, it’s not going to be higher or equal status as the owner, but slightly lower status than the human, and it’s vulnerable and needs you to take care of it in order to grow up into a good personality robot.
We don’t let Kiki speak full English sentences, because whenever it does that, people are going to think it’s at least as intelligent as a baby, which is impossible for robots at this point. And we also don’t let it move around, because when you have it move around, people are going to think “I’m going to call Kiki’s name, and then Kiki is will come to me.” But that is actually very difficult to build. And then also we don’t have any voice integration so it doesn’t tell you about the stock market price and so on.
Kiki is designed to be “vulnerable,” and it needs you to take care of it so it can “grow up into a good personality robot,” according to its creators.
That sounds similar to what Mayfield did with Kuri, emphasizing an emotional connection rather than specific functionality.
It is very similar, but one of the key differences from Kuri, I think, is that Kuri started with a Kobuki base, and then it’s wrapped into a cute shell, and they added sounds. So Kuri started with utility in mind—navigation is an important part of Kuri, so they started with that challenge. For Kiki, we started with the eyes. The entire thing started with the character itself.
How will you be able to convince your customers to spend $800 on a robot that you’ve described as “useless” in some ways?
Because it’s useless, it’s actually easier to convince people, because it provides you with an emotional connection. I think Kiki is not a utility-driven product, so the adoption cycle is different. For a functional product, it’s very easy to pick up, because you can justify it by saying “I’m going to pay this much and then my life can become this much more efficient.” But it’s also very easy to be replaced and forgotten. For an emotional-driven product, it’s slower to pick up, but once people actually pick it up, they’re going to be hooked—they get be connected with it, and they’re willing to invest more into taking care of the robot so it will grow up to be smarter.
Maintaining value over time has been another challenge for social home robots. How will you make sure that people don’t get bored with Kiki after a few weeks?
Of course Kiki has limits in what it can do. We can combine the eyes, the facial expression, the motors, and lights and sounds, but is it going to be constantly entertaining? So we think of this as, imagine if a human is actually puppeteering Kiki—can Kiki stay interesting if a human is puppeteering it and interacting with the owner? So I think what makes a robot interesting is not just in the physical expressions, but the part in between that and the robot conveying its intentions and emotions.
For example, if you come into the room and then Kiki decides it will turn the other direction, ignore you, and then you feel like, huh, why did the robot do that to me? Did I do something wrong? And then maybe you will come up to it and you will try to figure out why it did that. So, even though Kiki can only express in four different dimensions, it can still make things very interesting, and then when its strategies change, it makes it feel like a new experience.
There’s also an explore and exploit process going on. Kiki wants to make you smile, and it will try different things. It could try to chase its tail, and if you smile, Kiki learns that this works and will exploit it. But maybe after doing it three times, you no longer find it funny, because you’re bored of it, and then Kiki will observe your reactions and be motivated to explore a new strategy.
Kiki’s creators are hoping that, with an emotionally engaging robot, it will be easier for people to get attached to it and willing to spend time taking care of it.
A particular risk with crowdfunding a robot like this is setting expectations unreasonably high. The emphasis on personality and emotional engagement with Kiki seems like it may be very difficult for the robot to live up to in practice.
I think we invested more than most robotics companies into really building out Kiki’s personality, because that is the single most important thing to us. For Jibo a lot of the focus was in the assistant, and for Kuri, it’s more in the movement. For Kiki, it’s very much in the personality.
I feel like when most people talk about personality, they’re mainly talking about expression. With Kiki, it’s not just in the expression itself, not just in the voice or the eyes or the output layer, it’s in the layer in between—when Kiki receives input, how will it make decisions about what to do? We actually don’t think the personality of Kiki is categorizable, which is why I feel like Kiki has a deeper implementation of how personalities should work. And you’re right, Kiki doesn’t really understand why you’re feeling a certain way, it just reads your facial expressions. It’s maybe not your best friend, but maybe closer to your little guinea pig robot.
The team behind Kiki paid particular attention to its eyes, and designed the robot to always face the person that it is interacting with.
Is that where you’d put Kiki on the scale of human to pet?
Kiki is definitely not human, we want to keep it very far away from human. And it’s also not a dog or cat. When we were designing Kiki, we took inspiration from mammals because humans are deeply connected to mammals since we’re mammals ourselves. And specifically we’re connected to predator animals. With prey animals, their eyes are usually on the sides of their heads, because they need to see different angles. A predator animal needs to hunt, they need to focus. Cats and dogs are predator animals. So with Kiki, that’s why we made sure the eyes are on one side of the face and the head can actuate independently from the body and the body can turn so it’s always facing the person that it’s paying attention to.
I feel like Kiki is probably does more than a plant. It does more than a fish, because a fish doesn’t look you in the eyes. It’s not as smart as a cat or a dog, so I would just put it in this guinea pig kind of category.
What have you found so far when running user studies with Kiki?
When we were first designing Kiki we went through a whole series of prototypes. One of the earlier prototypes of Kiki looked like a CRT, like a very old monitor, and when we were testing that with people they didn’t even want to touch it. Kiki’s design inspiration actually came from an airplane, with a very angular, futuristic look, but based on user feedback we made it more round and more friendly to the touch. The lights were another feature request from the users, which adds another layer of expressivity to Kiki, and they wanted to see multiple Kikis working together with different personalities. Users also wanted different looks for Kiki, to make it look like a deer or a unicorn, for example, and we actually did take that into consideration because it doesn’t look like any particular mammal. In the future, you’ll be able to have different ears to make it look like completely different animals.
There has been a lot of user feedback that we didn’t implement—I believe we should observe the users reactions and feedback but not listen to their advice. The users shouldn’t be our product designers, because if you test Kiki with 10 users, eight of them will tell you they want Alexa in it. But we’re never going to add Alexa integration to Kiki because that’s not what it’s meant to do.
While it’s far too early to tell whether Kiki will be a long-term success, the Kickstarter campaign is currently over 95 percent funded with 8 days to go, and 34 robots are still available for a May 2020 delivery.
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