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#435687 Humanoid Robots Teach Coping Skills to ...

Photo: Rob Felt

IEEE Senior Member Ayanna Howard with one of the interactive androids that help children with autism improve their social and emotional engagement.

THE INSTITUTEChildren with autism spectrum disorder can have a difficult time expressing their emotions and can be highly sensitive to sound, sight, and touch. That sometimes restricts their participation in everyday activities, leaving them socially isolated. Occupational therapists can help them cope better, but the time they’re able to spend is limited and the sessions tend to be expensive.

Roboticist Ayanna Howard, an IEEE senior member, has been using interactive androids to guide children with autism on ways to socially and emotionally engage with others—as a supplement to therapy. Howard is chair of the School of Interactive Computing and director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab at Georgia Tech. She helped found Zyrobotics, a Georgia Tech VentureLab startup that is working on AI and robotics technologies to engage children with special needs. Last year Forbes named Howard, Zyrobotics’ chief technology officer, one of the Top 50 U.S. Women in Tech.

In a recent study, Howard and other researchers explored how robots might help children navigate sensory experiences. The experiment involved 18 participants between the ages of 4 and 12; five had autism, and the rest were meeting typical developmental milestones. Two humanoid robots were programmed to express boredom, excitement, nervousness, and 17 other emotional states. As children explored stations set up for hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching, the robots modeled what the socially acceptable responses should be.

“If a child’s expression is one of happiness or joy, the robot will have a corresponding response of encouragement,” Howard says. “If there are aspects of frustration or sadness, the robot will provide input to try again.” The study suggested that many children with autism exhibit stronger levels of engagement when the robots interact with them at such sensory stations.

It is one of many robotics projects Howard has tackled. She has designed robots for researching glaciers, and she is working on assistive robots for the home, as well as an exoskeleton that can help children who have motor disabilities.

Howard spoke about her work during the Ethics in AI: Impacts of (Anti?) Social Robotics panel session held in May at the IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit in San Diego. You can watch the session on IEEE.tv.

The next IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit and Honors Ceremony will be held on 15 May 2020 at the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver hotel, in Vancouver.

In this interview with The Institute, Howard talks about how she got involved with assistive technologies, the need for a more diverse workforce, and ways IEEE has benefited her career.

Howard was inspired to work on technology that can improve accessibility in 2008 while teaching high school students at a summer camp devoted to science, technology, engineering, and math.

“A young lady with a visual impairment attended camp. The robot programming tools being used at the camp weren’t accessible to her,” Howard says. “As an engineer, I want to fix problems when I see them, so we ended up designing tools to enable access to programming tools that could be used in STEM education.

“That was my starting motivation, and this theme of accessibility has expanded to become a main focus of my research. One of the things about this world of accessibility is that when you start interacting with kids and parents, you discover another world out there of assistive technologies and how robotics can be used for good in education as well as therapy.”

The Institute asked Howard why it’s important to have a more diverse STEM workforce and what could be done to increase the number of women and others from underrepresented groups.

“The makeup of the current engineering workforce isn’t necessarily representative of the world, which is composed of different races, cultures, ages, disabilities, and socio-economic backgrounds,” Howard says. “We’re creating products used by people around the globe, so we have to ensure they’re being designed for a diverse population. As IEEE members, we also need to engage with people who aren’t engineers, and we don’t do that enough.”

Educational institutions are doing a better job of increasing diversity in areas such as gender, she says, adding that more work is needed because the enrollment numbers still aren’t representative of the population and the gains don’t necessarily carry through after graduation.

“There has been an increase in the number of underrepresented minorities and females going into engineering and computer science,” she says, “but data has shown that their numbers are not sustained in the workforce.”

Because there are more underrepresented groups on today’s college campuses that can form a community, the lack of engineering role models—although a concern on campuses—is more extreme for preuniversity students, Howard says.

“Depending on where you go to school, you may not know what an engineer does or even consider engineering as an option,” she says, “so there’s still a big disconnect there.”

Howard has been involved for many years in math- and science-mentoring programs for at-risk high school girls. She tells them to find what they’re passionate about and combine it with math and science to create something. She also advises them not to let anyone tell them that they can’t.

Howard’s father is an engineer. She says he never encouraged or discouraged her to become one, but when she broke something, he would show her how to fix it and talk her through the process. Along the way, he taught her a logical way of thinking she says all engineers have.

“When I would try to explain something, he would quiz me and tell me to ‘think more logically,’” she says.

Howard earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Brown University, in Providence, R.I., then she received both a master’s and doctorate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. Before joining the faculty of Georgia Tech in 2005, she worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology for more than a decade as a senior robotics researcher and deputy manager in the Office of the Chief Scientist.

Howard’s father was also an IEEE member, but that’s not why she joined the organization. She says she signed up when she was a student because, “that was something that you just did. Plus, my student membership fee was subsidized.”

She kept the membership as a grad student because of the discounted rates members receive on conferences.

Those conferences have had an impact on her career. “They allow you to understand what the state of the art is,” she says. “Back then you received a printed conference proceeding and reading through it was brutal, but by attending it in person, you got a 15-minute snippet about the research.”

Howard is an active volunteer with the IEEE Robotics and Automation and the IEEE Systems, Man, and Cybernetics societies, holding many positions and serving on several committees. She is also featured in the IEEE Impact Creators campaign. These members were selected because they inspire others to innovate for a better tomorrow.

“I value IEEE for its community,” she says. “One of the nice things about IEEE is that it’s international.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435674 MIT Future of Work Report: We ...

Robots aren’t going to take everyone’s jobs, but technology has already reshaped the world of work in ways that are creating clear winners and losers. And it will continue to do so without intervention, says the first report of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future.

The supergroup of MIT academics was set up by MIT President Rafael Reif in early 2018 to investigate how emerging technologies will impact employment and devise strategies to steer developments in a positive direction. And the headline finding from their first publication is that it’s not the quantity of jobs we should be worried about, but the quality.

Widespread press reports of a looming “employment apocalypse” brought on by AI and automation are probably wide of the mark, according to the authors. Shrinking workforces as developed countries age and outstanding limitations in what machines can do mean we’re unlikely to have a shortage of jobs.

But while unemployment is historically low, recent decades have seen a polarization of the workforce as the number of both high- and low-skilled jobs have grown at the expense of the middle-skilled ones, driving growing income inequality and depriving the non-college-educated of viable careers.

This is at least partly attributable to the growth of digital technology and automation, the report notes, which are rendering obsolete many middle-skilled jobs based around routine work like assembly lines and administrative support.

That leaves workers to either pursue high-skilled jobs that require deep knowledge and creativity, or settle for low-paid jobs that rely on skills—like manual dexterity or interpersonal communication—that are still beyond machines, but generic to most humans and therefore not valued by employers. And the growth of emerging technology like AI and robotics is only likely to exacerbate the problem.

This isn’t the first report to note this trend. The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report noted how technology is causing a “hollowing out” of labor markets. But the MIT report goes further in saying that the cause isn’t simply technology, but the institutions and policies we’ve built around it.

The motivation for introducing new technology is broadly assumed to be to increase productivity, but the authors note a rarely-acknowledged fact: “Not all innovations that raise productivity displace workers, and not all innovations that displace workers substantially raise productivity.”

Examples of the former include computer-aided design software that makes engineers and architects more productive, while examples of the latter include self-service checkouts and automated customer support that replace human workers, often at the expense of a worse customer experience.

While the report notes that companies have increasingly adopted the language of technology augmenting labor, in reality this has only really benefited high-skilled workers. For lower-skilled jobs the motivation is primarily labor cost savings, which highlights the other major force shaping technology’s impact on employment: shareholder capitalism.

The authors note that up until the 1980s, increasing productivity resulted in wage growth across the economic spectrum, but since then average wage growth has failed to keep pace and gains have dramatically skewed towards the top earners.

The report shies away from directly linking this trend to the birth of Reaganomics (something others have been happy to do), but it notes that American veneration of the shareholder as the primary stakeholder in a business and tax policies that incentivize investment in capital rather than labor have exacerbated the negative impacts technology can have on employment.

That means the current focus on re-skilling workers to thrive in the new economy is a necessary, but not sufficient, solution to the disruptive impact technology is having on work, the authors say.

Alongside significant investment in education, fiscal policies need to be re-balanced away from subsidizing investment in physical capital and towards boosting investment in human capital, the authors write, and workers need to have a greater say in corporate decision-making.

The authors point to other developed economies where productivity growth, income growth, and equality haven’t become so disconnected thanks to investments in worker skills, social safety nets, and incentives to invest in human capital. Whether such a radical reshaping of US economic policy is achievable in today’s political climate remains to be seen, but the authors conclude with a call to arms.

“The failure of the US labor market to deliver broadly shared prosperity despite rising productivity is not an inevitable byproduct of current technologies or free markets,” they write. “We can and should do better.”

Image Credit: Simon Abrams / Unsplash/a> Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435669 Watch World Champion Soccer Robots Take ...

RoboCup 2019 took place earlier this month down in Sydney, Australia. While there are many different events including RoboCup@Home, RoboCup Rescue, and a bunch of different soccer leagues, one of the most compelling events is middle-size league (MSL), where mobile robots each about the size of a fire hydrant play soccer using a regular size FIFA soccer ball. The robots are fully autonomous, making their own decisions in real time about when to dribble, pass, and shoot.

The long-term goal of RoboCup is this:

By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.

While the robots are certainly not there yet, they're definitely getting closer.

Even if you’re not a particular fan of soccer, it’s impressive to watch the robots coordinate with each other, setting up multiple passes and changing tactics on the fly in response to the movements of the other team. And the ability of these robots to shoot accurately is world-class (like, human world-class), as they’re seemingly able to put the ball in whatever corner of the goal they choose with split-second timing.

The final match was between Tech United from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands (whose robots are called TURTLE), and Team Water from Beijing Information Science & Technology University. Without spoiling it, I can tell you that the game was tied within just the last few seconds, meaning that it had to go to overtime. You can watch the entire match on YouTube, or a 5-minute commentated highlight video here:

It’s become a bit of a tradition to have the winning MSL robots play a team of what looks to be inexperienced adult humans wearing long pants and dress shoes.

The fact that the robots managed to score even once is pretty awesome, and it also looks like the robots are playing very conservatively (more so than the humans) so as not to accidentally injure any of us fragile meatbags with our spindly little legs. I get that RoboCup wants its first team of robots that can beat a human World Cup winning team to be humanoids, but at the moment, the MSL robots are where all the skill is.

To get calibrated on the state of the art for humanoid soccer robots, here’s the adult size final, Team Nimbro from the University of Bonn in Germany versus Team Sweaty from Offenburg University in Germany:

Yup, still a lot of falling over.

There’s lots more RoboCup on YouTube: Some channels to find more matches include the official RoboCup 2019 channel, and Tech United Eindhoven’s channel, which has both live English commentary and some highlight videos.

[ RoboCup 2019 ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435646 Video Friday: Kiki Is a New Social Robot ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge tunnel circuit takes place in just a few weeks, and we’ll be there!

[ DARPA SubT ]

Time lapse video of robotic arm on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover handily maneuvers 88-pounds (40 kilograms) worth of sensor-laden turret as it moves from a deployed to stowed configuration.

If you haven’t read our interview with Matt Robinson, now would be a great time, since he’s one of the folks at JPL who designed this arm.

[ Mars 2020 ]

Kiki is a small, white, stationary social robot with an evolving personality who promises to be your friend and costs $800 and is currently on Kickstarter.

The Kickstarter page is filled with the same type of overpromising that we’ve seen with other (now very dead) social robots: Kiki is “conscious,” “understands your feelings,” and “loves you back.” Oof. That said, we’re happy to see more startups trying to succeed in this space, which is certainly one of the toughest in consumer electronics, and hopefully they’ve been learning from the recent string of failures. And we have to say Kiki is a cute robot. Its overall design, especially the body mechanics and expressive face, look neat. And kudos to the team—the company was founded by two ex-Googlers, Mita Yun and Jitu Das—for including the “unedited prototype videos,” which help counterbalance the hype.

Another thing that Kiki has going for it is that everything runs on the robot itself. This simplifies privacy and means that the robot won’t partially die on you if the company behind it goes under, but also limits how clever the robot will be able to be. The Kickstarter campaign is already over a third funded, so…We’ll see.

[ Kickstarter ]

When your UAV isn’t enough UAV, so you put a UAV on your UAV.

[ CanberraUAV ]

ABB’s YuMi is testing ATMs because a human trying to do this task would go broke almost immediately.

[ ABB ]

DJI has a fancy new FPV system that features easy setup, digital HD streaming at up to 120 FPS, and <30ms latency.

If it looks expensive, that’s because it costs $930 with the remote included.

[ DJI ]

Honeybee Robotics has recently developed a regolith excavation and rock cleaning system for NASA JPL’s PUFFER rovers. This system, called POCCET (PUFFER-Oriented Compact Cleaning and Excavation Tool), uses compressed gas to perform all excavation and cleaning tasks. Weighing less than 300 grams with potential for further mass reduction, POCCET can be used not just on the Moon, but on other Solar System bodies such as asteroids, comets, and even Mars.

[ Honeybee Robotics ]

DJI’s 2019 RoboMaster tournament, which takes place this month in Shenzen, looks like it’ll be fun to watch, with a plenty of action and rules that are easy to understand.

[ RoboMaster ]

Robots and baked goods are an automatic Video Friday inclusion.

Wow I want a cupcake right now.

[ Soft Robotics ]

The ICRA 2019 Best Paper Award went to Michelle A. Lee at Stanford, for “Making Sense of Vision and Touch: Self-Supervised Learning of Multimodal Representations for Contact-Rich Tasks.”

The ICRA video is here, and you can find the paper at the link below.

[ Paper ] via [ RoboHub ]

Cobalt Robotics put out a bunch of marketing-y videos this week, but this one reasonably interesting, even if you’re familiar with what they’re doing over there.

[ Cobalt Robotics ]

RightHand Robotics launched RightPick2 with a gala event which looked like fun as long as you were really, really in to robots.

[ RightHand Robotics ]

Thanks Jeff!

This video presents a framework for whole-body control applied to the assistive robotic system EDAN. We show how the proposed method can be used for a task like open, pass through and close a door. Also, we show the efficiency of the whole-body coordination with controlling the end-effector with respect to a fixed reference. Additionally, showing how easy the system can be manually manoeuvred by direct interaction with the end-effector, without the need for an extra input device.

[ DLR ]

You’ll probably need to turn on auto-translated subtitles for most of this, but it’s worth it for the adorable little single-seat robotic car designed to help people get around airports.

[ ZMP ]

In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Gonzalo Rey from Moog about their fancy 3D printed integrated hydraulic actuators.

Gonzalo talks about how Moog got started with hydraulic control,taking part in the space program and early robotics development. He shares how Moog’s technology is used in fly-by-wire systems in aircraft and in flow control in deep space probes. They have even reached Mars.

[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435579 RoMeLa’s Newest Robot Is a ...

A few years ago, we wrote about NABiRoS, a bipedal robot from Dennis Hong’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at UCLA. Unlike pretty much any other biped we’d ever seen, NABiRoS had a unique kinematic configuration that had it using its two legs to walk sideways, which offered some surprising advantages.

As it turns out, bipeds aren’t the only robots that can potentially benefit from a bit of a kinematic rethink. RoMeLa has redesigned quadrupedal robots too—rather than model them after a quadrupedal animal like a dog or a horse, RoMeLa’s ALPHRED robots use four legs arranged symmetrically around the body of the robot, allowing it to walk, run, hop, and jump, as well as manipulate and carry objects, karate chop through boards, and even roller skate on its butt. This robot can do it all.

Impressive, right? This is ALPHRED 2, and its predecessor, the original ALPHRED, was introduced at IROS 2018. Both ALPHREDs are axisymmetric about the vertical axis, meaning that they don’t have a front or a back and are perfectly happy to walk in any direction you like. Traditional quadrupeds like Spot or Laikago can also move sideways and backwards, but their leg arrangement makes them more efficient at moving in one particular direction, and also results in some curious compromises like a preference for going down stairs backwards. ANYmal is a bit more flexible in that it can reverse its knees, but it’s still got that traditional quadrupedal two-by-two configuration.

ALPHRED 2’s four symmetrical limbs can be used for a whole bunch of stuff. It can do quadrupedal walking and running, and it’s able to reach stable speeds of up to 1.5 m/s. If you want bipedal walking, it can do that NABiRoS-style, although it’s still a bit fragile at the moment. Using two legs for walking leaves two legs free, and those legs can turn into arms. A tripedal compromise configuration, with three legs and one arm, is more stable and allows the robot to do things like push buttons, open doors, and destroy property. And thanks to passive wheels under its body, ALPHRED 2 can use its limbs to quickly and efficiently skate around:

The impressive performance of the robot comes courtesy of a custom actuator that RoMeLa designed specifically for dynamic legged locomotion. They call it BEAR, or Back-Drivable Electromechanical Actuator for Robots. These are optionally liquid-cooled motors capable of proprioceptive sensing, consisting of a DC motor, a single stage 10:1 planetary gearbox, and channels through the back of the housing that coolant can be pumped through. The actuators have a peak torque of 32 Nm, and a continuous torque of about 8 Nm with passive air cooling. With liquid cooling, the continuous torque jumps to about 21 Nm. And in the videos above, ALPHRED 2 isn’t even running the liquid cooling system, suggesting that it’s capable of much higher sustained performance.

Photo: RoMeLa

Using two legs for walking leaves two legs free, and those legs can turn into arms.

RoMeLa has produced a bunch of very creative robots, and we appreciate that they also seem to produce a bunch of very creative demos showing why their unusual approaches are in fact (at least in some specific cases) somewhat practical. With the recent interest in highly dynamic robots that can be reliably useful in environments infested with humans, we can’t wait to see what kinds of exciting tricks the next (presumably liquid-cooled) version will be able to do.

[ RoMeLa ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots