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#436042 Video Friday: Caltech’s Drone With ...

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!):

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
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Caltech has been making progress on LEONARDO (LEg ON Aerial Robotic DrOne), their leggy thruster powered humanoid-thing. It can now balance and walk, which is quite impressive to see.

We’ll circle back again when they’ve got it jumping and floating around.

[ Caltech ]

Turn the subtitles on to learn how robots became experts at slicing bubbly, melty, delicious cheese.

These robots learned how to do the traditional Swiss raclette from demonstration. The Robot Learning & Interaction group at the Idiap Research Institute has developed an imitation learning technique allowing the robot to acquire new skills by considering position and force information, with an automatic adaptation to new situations. The range of applications is wide, including industrial robots, service robots, and assistive robots.

[ Idiap ]

Thanks Sylvain!

Some amazing news this week from Skydio, with the announcement of their better in every single way Skydio 2 autonomous drone. Read our full article for details, but here’s a getting started video that gives you an overview of what the drone can do.

The first batch sold out in 36 hours, but you can put down a $100 deposit to reserve the $999 drone for 2020 delivery.

[ Skydio ]

UBTECH is introducing a couple new robot kits for the holidays: ChampBot and FireBot.

$130 each, available on October 20.

[ Ubtech ]

NASA’s InSight lander on Mars is trying to use its robotic arm to get the mission’s heat flow probe, or mole, digging again. InSight team engineer Ashitey Trebbi-Ollennu, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explains what has been attempted and the game plan for the coming weeks. The next tactic they’ll try will be “pinning” the mole against the hole it’s in.

[ NASA ]

We introduce shape-changing swarm robots. A swarm of self-transformable robots can both individually and collectively change their configuration to display information, actuate objects, act as tangible controllers, visualize data, and provide physical affordances. ShapeBots is a concept prototype of shape-changing swarm robots. Each robot can change its shape by leveraging small linear actuators that are thin (2.5 cm) and highly extendable (up to 20cm) in both horizontal and vertical directions.

[ Ryo Suzuki ]

Robot abuse!

Vision 60 legged robot managing unstructured terrain without vision or force sensors in its legs. Using only high-transparency actuators and 2kHz algorithmic stability control… 4-limbs and 12-motors with only a velocity command.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

We asked real people to bring in real products they needed picked for their application. In MINUTES, we assembled the right tool.

This is a cool idea, but for a real challenge they should try it outside a supermarket. Or a pet store.

[ Soft Robotics ]

Good water quality is important to humans and to nature. In a country with as much water as the Netherlands has, ensuring water quality is a very labour-intensive undertaking. To address this issue, researchers from TU Delft have developed a ‘pelican drone’: a drone capable of taking water samples quickly, in combination with a measuring instrument that immediately analyses the water quality. The drone was tested this week at the new Marker Wadden nature area ‘Living Lab’.

[ MAVLab ]

In an international collaboration led by scientists in Switzerland, three amputees merge with their bionic prosthetic legs as they climb over various obstacles without having to look. The amputees report using and feeling their bionic leg as part of their own body, thanks to sensory feedback from the prosthetic leg that is delivered to nerves in the leg’s stump.

[ EPFL ]

It’s a little hard to see, but this is one way of testing out asteroid imaging spacecraft without actually going into space: a fake asteroid and a 2D microgravity simulator.

[ Caltech ]

Drones can help filmmakers do the kinds of shots that would be otherwise impossible.

[ DJI ]

Two long interviews this week from Lex Fridman’s AI Podcast, and both of them are worth watching: Gary Marcus, and Peter Norvig.

[ AI Podcast ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from Tucker Hermans at the University of Utah, on “Improving Multi-fingered Robot Manipulation by Unifying Learning and Planning.”

Multi-fingered hands offer autonomous robots increased dexterity, versatility, and stability over simple two-fingered grippers. Naturally, this increased ability comes with increased complexity in planning and executing manipulation actions. As such, I propose combining model-based planning with learned components to improve over purely data-driven or purely-model based approaches to manipulation. This talk examines multi-fingered autonomous manipulation when the robot has only partial knowledge of the object of interest. I will first present results on planning multi-fingered grasps for novel objects using a learned neural network. I will then present our approach to planning in-hand manipulation tasks when dynamic properties of objects are not known. I will conclude with a discussion of our ongoing and future research to further unify these two approaches.

[ CMU RI ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435804 New AI Systems Are Here to Personalize ...

The narratives about automation and its impact on jobs go from urgent to hopeful and everything in between. Regardless where you land, it’s hard to argue against the idea that technologies like AI and robotics will change our economy and the nature of work in the coming years.

A recent World Economic Forum report noted that some estimates show automation could displace 75 million jobs by 2022, while at the same time creating 133 million new roles. While these estimates predict a net positive for the number of new jobs in the coming decade, displaced workers will need to learn new skills to adapt to the changes. If employees can’t be retrained quickly for jobs in the changing economy, society is likely to face some degree of turmoil.

According to Bryan Talebi, CEO and founder of AI education startup Ahura AI, the same technologies erasing and creating jobs can help workers bridge the gap between the two.

Ahura is developing a product to capture biometric data from adult learners who are using computers to complete online education programs. The goal is to feed this data to an AI system that can modify and adapt their program to optimize for the most effective teaching method.

While the prospect of a computer recording and scrutinizing a learner’s behavioral data will surely generate unease across a society growing more aware and uncomfortable with digital surveillance, some people may look past such discomfort if they experience improved learning outcomes. Users of the system would, in theory, have their own personalized instruction shaped specifically for their unique learning style.

And according to Talebi, their systems are showing some promise.

“Based on our early tests, our technology allows people to learn three to five times faster than traditional education,” Talebi told me.

Currently, Ahura’s system uses the video camera and microphone that come standard on the laptops, tablets, and mobile devices most students are using for their learning programs.

With the computer’s camera Ahura can capture facial movements and micro expressions, measure eye movements, and track fidget score (a measure of how much a student moves while learning). The microphone tracks voice sentiment, and the AI leverages natural language processing to review the learner’s word usage.

From this collection of data Ahura can, according to Talebi, identify the optimal way to deliver content to each individual.

For some users that might mean a video tutorial is the best style of learning, while others may benefit more from some form of experiential or text-based delivery.

“The goal is to alter the format of the content in real time to optimize for attention and retention of the information,” said Talebi. One of Ahura’s main goals is to reduce the frequency with which students switch from their learning program to distractions like social media.

“We can now predict with a 60 percent confidence interval ten seconds before someone switches over to Facebook or Instagram. There’s a lot of work to do to get that up to a 95 percent level, so I don’t want to overstate things, but that’s a promising indication that we can work to cut down on the amount of context-switching by our students,” Talebi said.

Talebi repeatedly mentioned his ambition to leverage the same design principles used by Facebook, Twitter, and others to increase the time users spend on those platforms, but instead use them to design more compelling and even addictive education programs that can compete for attention with social media.

But the notion that Ahura’s system could one day be used to create compelling or addictive education necessarily presses against a set of justified fears surrounding data privacy. Growing anxiety surrounding the potential to misuse user data for social manipulation is widespread.

“Of course there is a real danger, especially because we are collecting so much data about our users which is specifically connected to how they consume content. And because we are looking so closely at the ways people interact with content, it’s incredibly important that this technology never be used for propaganda or to sell things to people,” Talebi tried to assure me.

Unsurprisingly (and worrying), using this AI system to sell products to people is exactly where some investors’ ambitions immediately turn once they learn about the company’s capabilities, according to Talebi. During our discussion Talebi regularly cited the now infamous example of Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign to run a psychographically targeted persuasion campaign on the US population during the most recent presidential election.

“It’s important that we don’t use this technology in those ways. We’re aware that things can go sideways, so we’re hoping to put up guardrails to ensure our system is helping and not harming society,” Talebi said.

Talebi will surely need to take real action on such a claim, but says the company is in the process of identifying a structure for an ethics review board—one that carries significant influence with similar voting authority as the executive team and the regular board.

“Our goal is to build an ethics review board that has teeth, is diverse in both gender and background but also in thought and belief structures. The idea is to have our ethics review panel ensure we’re building things ethically,” he said.

Data privacy appears to be an important issue for Talebi, who occasionally referenced a major competitor in the space based in China. According to a recent article from MIT Tech Review outlining the astonishing growth of AI-powered education platforms in China, data privacy concerns may be less severe there than in the West.

Ahura is currently developing upgrades to an early alpha-stage prototype, but is already capturing data from students from at least one Ivy League school and a variety of other places. Their next step is to roll out a working beta version to over 200,000 users as part of a partnership with an unnamed corporate client who will be measuring the platform’s efficacy against a control group.

Going forward, Ahura hopes to add to its suite of biometric data capture by including things like pupil dilation and facial flushing, heart rate, sleep patterns, or whatever else may give their system an edge in improving learning outcomes.

As information technologies increasingly automate work, it’s likely we’ll also see rapid changes to our labor systems. It’s also looking increasingly likely that those same technologies will be used to improve our ability to give people the right skills when they need them. It may be one way to address the challenges automation is sure to bring.

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435769 The Ultimate Optimization Problem: How ...

Lucas Joppa thinks big. Even while gazing down into his cup of tea in his modest office on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, he seems to see the entire planet bobbing in there like a spherical tea bag.

As Microsoft’s first chief environmental officer, Joppa came up with the company’s AI for Earth program, a five-year effort that’s spending US $50 million on AI-powered solutions to global environmental challenges.

The program is not just about specific deliverables, though. It’s also about mindset, Joppa told IEEE Spectrum in an interview in July. “It’s a plea for people to think about the Earth in the same way they think about the technologies they’re developing,” he says. “You start with an objective. So what’s our objective function for Earth?” (In computer science, an objective function describes the parameter or parameters you are trying to maximize or minimize for optimal results.)

Photo: Microsoft

Lucas Joppa

AI for Earth launched in December 2017, and Joppa’s team has since given grants to more than 400 organizations around the world. In addition to receiving funding, some grantees get help from Microsoft’s data scientists and access to the company’s computing resources.

In a wide-ranging interview about the program, Joppa described his vision of the “ultimate optimization problem”—figuring out which parts of the planet should be used for farming, cities, wilderness reserves, energy production, and so on.

Every square meter of land and water on Earth has an infinite number of possible utility functions. It’s the job of Homo sapiens to describe our overall objective for the Earth. Then it’s the job of computers to produce optimization results that are aligned with the human-defined objective.

I don’t think we’re close at all to being able to do this. I think we’re closer from a technology perspective—being able to run the model—than we are from a social perspective—being able to make decisions about what the objective should be. What do we want to do with the Earth’s surface?

Such questions are increasingly urgent, as climate change has already begun reshaping our planet and our societies. Global sea and air surface temperatures have already risen by an average of 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Today, people all around the world participated in a “climate strike,” with young people leading the charge and demanding a global transition to renewable energy. On Monday, world leaders will gather in New York for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where they’re expected to present plans to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Joppa says such summit discussions should aim for a truly holistic solution.

We talk about how to solve climate change. There’s a higher-order question for society: What climate do we want? What output from nature do we want and desire? If we could agree on those things, we could put systems in place for optimizing our environment accordingly. Instead we have this scattered approach, where we try for local optimization. But the sum of local optimizations is never a global optimization.

There’s increasing interest in using artificial intelligence to tackle global environmental problems. New sensing technologies enable scientists to collect unprecedented amounts of data about the planet and its denizens, and AI tools are becoming vital for interpreting all that data.

The 2018 report “Harnessing AI for the Earth,” produced by the World Economic Forum and the consulting company PwC, discusses ways that AI can be used to address six of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges (climate change, biodiversity, and healthy oceans, water security, clean air, and disaster resilience).

Many of the proposed applications involve better monitoring of human and natural systems, as well as modeling applications that would enable better predictions and more efficient use of natural resources.

Joppa says that AI for Earth is taking a two-pronged approach, funding efforts to collect and interpret vast amounts of data alongside efforts that use that data to help humans make better decisions. And that’s where the global optimization engine would really come in handy.

For any location on earth, you should be able to go and ask: What’s there, how much is there, and how is it changing? And more importantly: What should be there?

On land, the data is really only interesting for the first few hundred feet. Whereas in the ocean, the depth dimension is really important.

We need a planet with sensors, with roving agents, with remote sensing. Otherwise our decisions aren’t going to be any good.

AI for Earth isn’t going to create such an online portal within five years, Joppa stresses. But he hopes the projects that he’s funding will contribute to making such a portal possible—eventually.

We’re asking ourselves: What are the fundamental missing layers in the tech stack that would allow people to build a global optimization engine? Some of them are clear, some are still opaque to me.

By the end of five years, I’d like to have identified these missing layers, and have at least one example of each of the components.

Some of the projects that AI for Earth has funded seem to fit that desire. Examples include SilviaTerra, which used satellite imagery and AI to create a map of the 92 billion trees in forested areas across the United States. There’s also OceanMind, a non-profit that detects illegal fishing and helps marine authorities enforce compliance. Platforms like Wildbook and iNaturalist enable citizen scientists to upload pictures of animals and plants, aiding conservation efforts and research on biodiversity. And FarmBeats aims to enable data-driven agriculture with low-cost sensors, drones, and cloud services.

It’s not impossible to imagine putting such services together into an optimization engine that knows everything about the land, the water, and the creatures who live on planet Earth. Then we’ll just have to tell that engine what we want to do about it.

Editor’s note: This story is published in cooperation with more than 250 media organizations and independent journalists that have focused their coverage on climate change ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit. IEEE Spectrum’s participation in the Covering Climate Now partnership builds on our past reporting about this global issue. 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

#435528 The Time for AI Is Now. Here’s Why

You hear a lot these days about the sheer transformative power of AI.

There’s pure intelligence: DeepMind’s algorithms readily beat humans at Go and StarCraft, and DeepStack triumphs over humans at no-limit hold’em poker. Often, these silicon brains generate gameplay strategies that don’t resemble anything from a human mind.

There’s astonishing speed: algorithms routinely surpass radiologists in diagnosing breast cancer, eye disease, and other ailments visible from medical imaging, essentially collapsing decades of expert training down to a few months.

Although AI’s silent touch is mainly felt today in the technological, financial, and health sectors, its impact across industries is rapidly spreading. At the Singularity University Global Summit in San Francisco this week Neil Jacobstein, Chair of AI and Robotics, painted a picture of a better AI-powered future for humanity that is already here.

Thanks to cloud-based cognitive platforms, sophisticated AI tools like deep learning are no longer relegated to academic labs. For startups looking to tackle humanity’s grand challenges, the tools to efficiently integrate AI into their missions are readily available. The progress of AI is massively accelerating—to the point you need help from AI to track its progress, joked Jacobstein.

Now is the time to consider how AI can impact your industry, and in the process, begin to envision a beneficial relationship with our machine coworkers. As Jacobstein stressed in his talk, the future of a brain-machine mindmeld is a collaborative intelligence that augments our own. “AI is reinventing the way we invent,” he said.

AI’s Rapid Revolution
Machine learning and other AI-based methods may seem academic and abstruse. But Jacobstein pointed out that there are already plenty of real-world AI application frameworks.

Their secret? Rather than coding from scratch, smaller companies—with big visions—are tapping into cloud-based solutions such as Google’s TensorFlow, Microsoft’s Azure, or Amazon’s AWS to kick off their AI journey. These platforms act as all-in-one solutions that not only clean and organize data, but also contain built-in security and drag-and-drop coding that allow anyone to experiment with complicated machine learning algorithms.

Google Cloud’s Anthos, for example, lets anyone migrate data from other servers—IBM Watson or AWS, for example—so users can leverage different computing platforms and algorithms to transform data into insights and solutions.

Rather than coding from scratch, it’s already possible to hop onto a platform and play around with it, said Jacobstein. That’s key: this democratization of AI is how anyone can begin exploring solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had, or those long thought improbable.

The acceleration is only continuing. Much of AI’s mind-bending pace is thanks to a massive infusion of funding. Microsoft recently injected $1 billion into OpenAI, the Elon Musk venture that engineers socially responsible artificial general intelligence (AGI).

The other revolution is in hardware, and Google, IBM, and NVIDIA—among others—are racing to manufacture computing chips tailored to machine learning.

Democratizing AI is like the birth of the printing press. Mechanical printing allowed anyone to become an author; today, an iPhone lets anyone film a movie masterpiece.

However, this diffusion of AI into the fabric of our lives means tech explorers need to bring skepticism to their AI solutions, giving them a dose of empathy, nuance, and humanity.

A Path Towards Ethical AI
The democratization of AI is a double-edged sword: as more people wield the technology’s power in real-world applications, problems embedded in deep learning threaten to disrupt those very judgment calls.

Much of the press on the dangers of AI focuses on superintelligence—AI that’s more adept at learning than humans—taking over the world, said Jacobstein. But the near-term threat, and far more insidious, is in humans misusing the technology.

Deepfakes, for example, allow AI rookies to paste one person’s head on a different body or put words into a person’s mouth. As the panel said, it pays to think of AI as a cybersecurity problem, one with currently shaky accountability and complexity, and one that fails at diversity and bias.

Take bias. Thanks to progress in natural language processing, Google Translate works nearly perfectly today, so much so that many consider the translation problem solved. Not true, the panel said. One famous example is how the algorithm translates gender-neutral terms like “doctor” into “he” and “nurse” into “she.”

These biases reflect our own, and it’s not just a data problem. To truly engineer objective AI systems, ones stripped of our society’s biases, we need to ask who is developing these systems, and consult those who will be impacted by the products. In addition to gender, racial bias is also rampant. For example, one recent report found that a supposedly objective crime-predicting system was trained on falsified data, resulting in outputs that further perpetuate corrupt police practices. Another study from Google just this month found that their hate speech detector more often labeled innocuous tweets from African-Americans as “obscene” compared to tweets from people of other ethnicities.

We often think of building AI as purely an engineering job, the panelists agreed. But similar to gene drives, germ-line genome editing, and other transformative—but dangerous—tools, AI needs to grow under the consultation of policymakers and other stakeholders. It pays to start young: educating newer generations on AI biases will mold malleable minds early, alerting them to the problem of bias and potentially mitigating risks.

As panelist Tess Posner from AI4ALL said, AI is rocket fuel for ambition. If young minds set out using the tools of AI to tackle their chosen problems, while fully aware of its inherent weaknesses, we can begin to build an AI-embedded future that is widely accessible and inclusive.

The bottom line: people who will be impacted by AI need to be in the room at the conception of an AI solution. People will be displaced by the new technology, and ethical AI has to consider how to mitigate human suffering during the transition. Just because AI looks like “magic fairy dust doesn’t mean that you’re home free,” the panelists said. You, the sentient human, bear the burden of being responsible for how you decide to approach the technology.

The time for AI is now. Let’s make it ethical.

Image Credit: GrAI / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots