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#431733 Why Humanoid Robots Are Still So Hard to ...

Picture a robot. In all likelihood, you just pictured a sleek metallic or chrome-white humanoid. Yet the vast majority of robots in the world around us are nothing like this; instead, they’re specialized for specific tasks. Our cultural conception of what robots are dates back to the coining of the term robots in the Czech play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which originally envisioned them as essentially synthetic humans.
The vision of a humanoid robot is tantalizing. There are constant efforts to create something that looks like the robots of science fiction. Recently, an old competitor in this field returned with a new model: Toyota has released what they call the T-HR3. As humanoid robots go, it appears to be pretty dexterous and have a decent grip, with a number of degrees of freedom making the movements pleasantly human.
This humanoid robot operates mostly via a remote-controlled system that allows the user to control the robot’s limbs by exerting different amounts of pressure on a framework. A VR headset completes the picture, allowing the user to control the robot’s body and teleoperate the machine. There’s no word on a price tag, but one imagines a machine with a control system this complicated won’t exactly be on your Christmas list, unless you’re a billionaire.

Toyota is no stranger to robotics. They released a series of “Partner Robots” that had a bizarre affinity for instrument-playing but weren’t often seen doing much else. Given that they didn’t seem to have much capability beyond the automaton that Leonardo da Vinci made hundreds of years ago, they promptly vanished. If, as the name suggests, the T-HR3 is a sequel to these robots, which came out shortly after ASIMO back in 2003, it’s substantially better.
Slightly less humanoid (and perhaps the more useful for it), Toyota’s HSR-2 is a robot base on wheels with a simple mechanical arm. It brings to mind earlier machines produced by dream-factory startup Willow Garage like the PR-2. The idea of an affordable robot that could simply move around on wheels and pick up and fetch objects, and didn’t harbor too-lofty ambitions to do anything else, was quite successful.
So much so that when Robocup, the international robotics competition, looked for a platform for their robot-butler competition @Home, they chose HSR-2 for its ability to handle objects. HSR-2 has been deployed in trial runs to care for the elderly and injured, but has yet to be widely adopted for these purposes five years after its initial release. It’s telling that arguably the most successful multi-purpose humanoid robot isn’t really humanoid at all—and it’s curious that Toyota now seems to want to return to a more humanoid model a decade after they gave up on the project.
What’s unclear, as is often the case with humanoid robots, is what, precisely, the T-HR3 is actually for. The teleoperation gets around the complex problem of control by simply having the machine controlled remotely by a human. That human then handles all the sensory perception, decision-making, planning, and manipulation; essentially, the hardest problems in robotics.
There may not be a great deal of autonomy for the T-HR3, but by sacrificing autonomy, you drastically cut down the uses of the robot. Since it can’t act alone, you need a convincing scenario where you need a teleoperated humanoid robot that’s less precise and vastly more expensive than just getting a person to do the same job. Perhaps someday more autonomy will be developed for the robot, and the master maneuvering system that allows humans to control it will only be used in emergencies to control the robot if it gets stuck.
Toyota’s press release says it is “a platform with capabilities that can safely assist humans in a variety of settings, such as the home, medical facilities, construction sites, disaster-stricken areas and even outer space.” In reality, it’s difficult to see such a robot being affordable or even that useful in the home or in medical facilities (unless it’s substantially stronger than humans). Equally, it certainly doesn’t seem robust enough to be deployed in disaster zones or outer space. These tasks have been mooted for robots for a very long time and few have proved up to the challenge.
Toyota’s third generation humanoid robot, the T-HR3. Image Credit: Toyota
Instead, the robot seems designed to work alongside humans. Its design, standing 1.5 meters tall, weighing 75 kilograms, and possessing 32 degrees of freedom in its body, suggests it is built to closely mimic a person, rather than a robot like ATLAS which is robust enough that you can imagine it being useful in a war zone. In this case, it might be closer to the model of the collaborative robots or co-bots developed by Rethink Robotics, whose tons of safety features, including force-sensitive feedback for the user, reduce the risk of terrible PR surrounding killer robots.
Instead the emphasis is on graceful precision engineering: in the promo video, the robot can be seen balancing on one leg before showing off a few poised, yoga-like poses. This perhaps suggests that an application in elderly care, which Toyota has ventured into before and which was the stated aim of their simple HSR-2, might be more likely than deployment to a disaster zone.
The reason humanoid robots remain so elusive and so tempting is probably because of a simple cognitive mistake. We make two bad assumptions. First, we assume that if you build a humanoid robot, give its joints enough flexibility, throw in a little AI and perhaps some pre-programmed behaviors, then presto, it will be able to do everything humans can. When you see a robot that moves well and looks humanoid, it seems like the hardest part is done; surely this robot could do anything. The reality is never so simple.

We also make the reverse assumption: we assume that when we are finally replaced, it will be by perfect replicas of our own bodies and brains that can fulfill all the functions we used to fulfill. Perhaps, in reality, the future of robots and AI is more like its present: piecemeal, with specialized algorithms and specialized machines gradually learning to outperform humans at every conceivable task without ever looking convincingly human.
It may well be that the T-HR3 is angling towards this concept of machine learning as a platform for future research. Rather than trying to program an omni-capable robot out of the box, it will gradually learn from its human controllers. In this way, you could see the platform being used to explore the limits of what humans can teach robots to do simply by having them mimic sequences of our bodies’ motion, in the same way the exploitation of neural networks is testing the limits of training algorithms on data. No one machine will be able to perform everything a human can, but collectively, they will vastly outperform us at anything you’d want one to do.
So when you see a new android like Toyota’s, feel free to marvel at its technical abilities and indulge in the speculation about whether it’s a PR gimmick or a revolutionary step forward along the road to human replacement. Just remember that, human-level bots or not, we’re already strolling down that road.
Image Credit: Toyota Continue reading

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#431653 9 Robot Animals Built From Nature’s ...

Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics

Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo

Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley

Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University

Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University

Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech

Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley

While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume

A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
Image Credit: Boston Dynamics / YouTube Continue reading

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#431592 Reactive Content Will Get to Know You ...

The best storytellers react to their audience. They look for smiles, signs of awe, or boredom; they simultaneously and skillfully read both the story and their sitters. Kevin Brooks, a seasoned storyteller working for Motorola’s Human Interface Labs, explains, “As the storyteller begins, they must tune in to… the audience’s energy. Based on this energy, the storyteller will adjust their timing, their posture, their characterizations, and sometimes even the events of the story. There is a dialog between audience and storyteller.”
Shortly after I read the script to Melita, the latest virtual reality experience from Madrid-based immersive storytelling company Future Lighthouse, CEO Nicolas Alcalá explained to me that the piece is an example of “reactive content,” a concept he’s been working on since his days at Singularity University.

For the first time in history, we have access to technology that can merge the reactive and affective elements of oral storytelling with the affordances of digital media, weaving stunning visuals, rich soundtracks, and complex meta-narratives in a story arena that has the capability to know you more intimately than any conventional storyteller could.
It’s no understatement to say that the storytelling potential here is phenomenal.
In short, we can refer to content as reactive if it reads and reacts to users based on their body rhythms, emotions, preferences, and data points. Artificial intelligence is used to analyze users’ behavior or preferences to sculpt unique storylines and narratives, essentially allowing for a story that changes in real time based on who you are and how you feel.
The development of reactive content will allow those working in the industry to go one step further than simply translating the essence of oral storytelling into VR. Rather than having a narrative experience with a digital storyteller who can read you, reactive content has the potential to create an experience with a storyteller who knows you.
This means being able to subtly insert minor personal details that have a specific meaning to the viewer. When we talk to our friends we often use experiences we’ve shared in the past or knowledge of our audience to give our story as much resonance as possible. Targeting personal memories and aspects of our lives is a highly effective way to elicit emotions and aid in visualizing narratives. When you can do this with the addition of visuals, music, and characters—all lifted from someone’s past—you have the potential for overwhelmingly engaging and emotionally-charged content.
Future Lighthouse inform me that for now, reactive content will rely primarily on biometric feedback technology such as breathing, heartbeat, and eye tracking sensors. A simple example would be a story in which parts of the environment or soundscape change in sync with the user’s heartbeat and breathing, or characters who call you out for not paying attention.
The next step would be characters and situations that react to the user’s emotions, wherein algorithms analyze biometric information to make inferences about states of emotional arousal (“why are you so nervous?” etc.). Another example would be implementing the use of “arousal parameters,” where the audience can choose what level of “fear” they want from a VR horror story before algorithms modulate the experience using information from biometric feedback devices.
The company’s long-term goal is to gather research on storytelling conventions and produce a catalogue of story “wireframes.” This entails distilling the basic formula to different genres so they can then be fleshed out with visuals, character traits, and soundtracks that are tailored for individual users based on their deep data, preferences, and biometric information.
The development of reactive content will go hand in hand with a renewed exploration of diverging, dynamic storylines, and multi-narratives, a concept that hasn’t had much impact in the movie world thus far. In theory, the idea of having a story that changes and mutates is captivating largely because of our love affair with serendipity and unpredictability, a cultural condition theorist Arthur Kroker refers to as the “hypertextual imagination.” This feeling of stepping into the unknown with the possibility of deviation from the habitual translates as a comforting reminder that our own lives can take exciting and unexpected turns at any moment.
The inception of the concept into mainstream culture dates to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series that launched in the late 70s, which in its literary form had great success. However, filmic takes on the theme have made somewhat less of an impression. DVDs like I’m Your Man (1998) and Switching (2003) both use scene selection tools to determine the direction of the storyline.
A more recent example comes from Kino Industries, who claim to have developed the technology to allow filmmakers to produce interactive films in which viewers can use smartphones to quickly vote on which direction the narrative takes at numerous decision points throughout the film.
The main problem with diverging narrative films has been the stop-start nature of the interactive element: when I’m immersed in a story I don’t want to have to pick up a controller or remote to select what’s going to happen next. Every time the audience is given the option to take a new path (“press this button”, “vote on X, Y, Z”) the narrative— and immersion within that narrative—is temporarily halted, and it takes the mind a while to get back into this state of immersion.
Reactive content has the potential to resolve these issues by enabling passive interactivity—that is, input and output without having to pause and actively make decisions or engage with the hardware. This will result in diverging, dynamic narratives that will unfold seamlessly while being dependent on and unique to the specific user and their emotions. Passive interactivity will also remove the game feel that can often be a symptom of interactive experiences and put a viewer somewhere in the middle: still firmly ensconced in an interactive dynamic narrative, but in a much subtler way.
While reading the Melita script I was particularly struck by a scene in which the characters start to engage with the user and there’s a synchronicity between the user’s heartbeat and objects in the virtual world. As the narrative unwinds and the words of Melita’s character get more profound, parts of the landscape, which seemed to be flashing and pulsating at random, come together and start to mimic the user’s heartbeat.
In 2013, Jane Aspell of Anglia Ruskin University (UK) and Lukas Heydrich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology proved that a user’s sense of presence and identification with a virtual avatar could be dramatically increased by syncing the on-screen character with the heartbeat of the user. The relationship between bio-digital synchronicity, immersion, and emotional engagement is something that will surely have revolutionary narrative and storytelling potential.
Image Credit: Tithi Luadthong / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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#431389 Tech Is Becoming Emotionally ...

Many people get frustrated with technology when it malfunctions or is counterintuitive. The last thing people might expect is for that same technology to pick up on their emotions and engage with them differently as a result.
All of that is now changing. Computers are increasingly able to figure out what we’re feeling—and it’s big business.
A recent report predicts that the global affective computing market will grow from $12.2 billion in 2016 to $53.98 billion by 2021. The report by research and consultancy firm MarketsandMarkets observed that enabling technologies have already been adopted in a wide range of industries and noted a rising demand for facial feature extraction software.
Affective computing is also referred to as emotion AI or artificial emotional intelligence. Although many people are still unfamiliar with the category, researchers in academia have already discovered a multitude of uses for it.
At the University of Tokyo, Professor Toshihiko Yamasaki decided to develop a machine learning system that evaluates the quality of TED Talk videos. Of course, a TED Talk is only considered to be good if it resonates with a human audience. On the surface, this would seem too qualitatively abstract for computer analysis. But Yamasaki wanted his system to watch videos of presentations and predict user impressions. Could a machine learning system accurately evaluate the emotional persuasiveness of a speaker?
Yamasaki and his colleagues came up with a method that analyzed correlations and “multimodal features including linguistic as well as acoustic features” in a dataset of 1,646 TED Talk videos. The experiment was successful. The method obtained “a statistically significant macro-average accuracy of 93.3 percent, outperforming several competitive baseline methods.”
A machine was able to predict whether or not a person would emotionally connect with other people. In their report, the authors noted that these findings could be used for recommendation purposes and also as feedback to the presenters, in order to improve the quality of their public presentation. However, the usefulness of affective computing goes far beyond the way people present content. It may also transform the way they learn it.
Researchers from North Carolina State University explored the connection between students’ affective states and their ability to learn. Their software was able to accurately predict the effectiveness of online tutoring sessions by analyzing the facial expressions of participating students. The software tracked fine-grained facial movements such as eyebrow raising, eyelid tightening, and mouth dimpling to determine engagement, frustration, and learning. The authors concluded that “analysis of facial expressions has great potential for educational data mining.”
This type of technology is increasingly being used within the private sector. Affectiva is a Boston-based company that makes emotion recognition software. When asked to comment on this emerging technology, Gabi Zijderveld, chief marketing officer at Affectiva, explained in an interview for this article, “Our software measures facial expressions of emotion. So basically all you need is our software running and then access to a camera so you can basically record a face and analyze it. We can do that in real time or we can do this by looking at a video and then analyzing data and sending it back to folks.”
The technology has particular relevance for the advertising industry.
Zijderveld said, “We have products that allow you to measure how consumers or viewers respond to digital content…you could have a number of people looking at an ad, you measure their emotional response so you aggregate the data and it gives you insight into how well your content is performing. And then you can adapt and adjust accordingly.”
Zijderveld explained that this is the first market where the company got traction. However, they have since packaged up their core technology in software development kits or SDKs. This allows other companies to integrate emotion detection into whatever they are building.
By licensing its technology to others, Affectiva is now rapidly expanding into a wide variety of markets, including gaming, education, robotics, and healthcare. The core technology is also used in human resources for the purposes of video recruitment. The software analyzes the emotional responses of interviewees, and that data is factored into hiring decisions.
Richard Yonck is founder and president of Intelligent Future Consulting and the author of a book about our relationship with technology. “One area I discuss in Heart of the Machine is the idea of an emotional economy that will arise as an ecosystem of emotionally aware businesses, systems, and services are developed. This will rapidly expand into a multi-billion-dollar industry, leading to an infrastructure that will be both emotionally responsive and potentially exploitive at personal, commercial, and political levels,” said Yonck, in an interview for this article.
According to Yonck, these emotionally-aware systems will “better anticipate needs, improve efficiency, and reduce stress and misunderstandings.”
Affectiva is uniquely positioned to profit from this “emotional economy.” The company has already created the world’s largest emotion database. “We’ve analyzed a little bit over 4.7 million faces in 75 countries,” said Zijderveld. “This is data first and foremost, it’s data gathered with consent. So everyone has opted in to have their faces analyzed.”
The vastness of that database is essential for deep learning approaches. The software would be inaccurate if the data was inadequate. According to Zijderveld, “If you don’t have massive amounts of data of people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, then your algorithms are going to be pretty biased.”
This massive database has already revealed cultural insights into how people express emotion. Zijderveld explained, “Obviously everyone knows that women are more expressive than men. But our data confirms that, but not only that, it can also show that women smile longer. They tend to smile more often. There’s also regional differences.”
Yonck believes that affective computing will inspire unimaginable forms of innovation and that change will happen at a fast pace.
He explained, “As businesses, software, systems, and services develop, they’ll support and make possible all sorts of other emotionally aware technologies that couldn’t previously exist. This leads to a spiral of increasingly sophisticated products, just as happened in the early days of computing.”
Those who are curious about affective technology will soon be able to interact with it.
Hubble Connected unveiled the Hubble Hugo at multiple trade shows this year. Hugo is billed as “the world’s first smart camera,” with emotion AI video analytics powered by Affectiva. The product can identify individuals, figure out how they’re feeling, receive voice commands, video monitor your home, and act as a photographer and videographer of events. Media can then be transmitted to the cloud. The company’s website describes Hugo as “a fun pal to have in the house.”
Although he sees the potential for improved efficiencies and expanding markets, Richard Yonck cautions that AI technology is not without its pitfalls.
“It’s critical that we understand we are headed into very unknown territory as we develop these systems, creating problems unlike any we’ve faced before,” said Yonck. “We should put our focus on ensuring AI develops in a way that represents our human values and ideals.”
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#431371 Amazon Is Quietly Building the Robots of ...

Science fiction is the siren song of hard science. How many innocent young students have been lured into complex, abstract science, technology, engineering, or mathematics because of a reckless and irresponsible exposure to Arthur C. Clarke at a tender age? Yet Arthur C. Clarke has a very famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s the prospect of making that… ahem… magic leap that entices so many people into STEM in the first place. A magic leap that would change the world. How about, for example, having humanoid robots? They could match us in dexterity and speed, perceive the world around them as we do, and be programmed to do, well, more or less anything we can do.
Such a technology would change the world forever.
But how will it arrive? While true sci-fi robots won’t get here right away—the pieces are coming together, and the company best developing them at the moment is Amazon. Where others have struggled to succeed, Amazon has been quietly progressing. Notably, Amazon has more than just a dream, it has the most practical of reasons driving it into robotics.
This practicality matters. Technological development rarely proceeds by magic; it’s a process filled with twists, turns, dead-ends, and financial constraints. New technologies often have to answer questions like “What is this good for, are you being realistic?” A good strategy, then, can be to build something more limited than your initial ambition, but useful for a niche market. That way, you can produce a prototype, have a reasonable business plan, and turn a profit within a decade. You might call these “stepping stone” applications that allow for new technologies to be developed in an economically viable way.
You need something you can sell to someone, soon: that’s how you get investment in your idea. It’s this model that iRobot, developers of the Roomba, used: migrating from military prototypes to robotic vacuum cleaners to become the “boring, successful robot company.” Compare this to Willow Garage, a genius factory if ever there was one: they clearly had ambitions towards a general-purpose, multi-functional robot. They built an impressive device—PR2—and programmed the operating system, ROS, that is still the industry and academic standard to this day.
But since they were unable to sell their robot for much less than $250,000, it was never likely to be a profitable business. This is why Willow Garage is no more, and many workers at the company went into telepresence robotics. Telepresence is essentially videoconferencing with a fancy robot attached to move the camera around. It uses some of the same software (for example, navigation and mapping) without requiring you to solve difficult problems of full autonomy for the robot, or manipulating its environment. It’s certainly one of the stepping-stone areas that various companies are investigating.
Another approach is to go to the people with very high research budgets: the military.
This was the Boston Dynamics approach, and their incredible achievements in bipedal locomotion saw them getting snapped up by Google. There was a great deal of excitement and speculation about Google’s “nightmare factory” whenever a new slick video of a futuristic militarized robot surfaced. But Google broadly backed away from Replicant, their robotics program, and Boston Dynamics was sold. This was partly due to PR concerns over the Terminator-esque designs, but partly because they didn’t see the robotics division turning a profit. They hadn’t found their stepping stones.
This is where Amazon comes in. Why Amazon? First off, they just announced that their profits are up by 30 percent, and yet the company is well-known for their constantly-moving Day One philosophy where a great deal of the profits are reinvested back into the business. But lots of companies have ambition.
One thing Amazon has that few other corporations have, as well as big financial resources, is viable stepping stones for developing the technologies needed for this sort of robotics to become a reality. They already employ 100,000 robots: these are of the “pragmatic, boring, useful” kind that we’ve profiled, which move around the shelves in warehouses. These robots are allowing Amazon to develop localization and mapping software for robots that can autonomously navigate in the simple warehouse environment.
But their ambitions don’t end there. The Amazon Robotics Challenge is a multi-million dollar competition, open to university teams, to produce a robot that can pick and package items in warehouses. The problem of grasping and manipulating a range of objects is not a solved one in robotics, so this work is still done by humans—yet it’s absolutely fundamental for any sci-fi dream robot.
Google, for example, attempted to solve this problem by hooking up 14 robot hands to machine learning algorithms and having them grasp thousands of objects. Although results were promising, the 10 to 20 percent failure rate for grasps is too high for warehouse use. This is a perfect stepping stone for Amazon; should they crack the problem, they will likely save millions in logistics.
Another area where humanoid robotics—especially bipedal locomotion, or walking, has been seriously suggested—is in the last mile delivery problem. Amazon has shown willingness to be creative in this department with their notorious drone delivery service. In other words, it’s all very well to have your self-driving car or van deliver packages to people’s doors, but who puts the package on the doorstep? It’s difficult for wheeled robots to navigate the full range of built environments that exist. That’s why bipedal robots like CASSIE, developed by Oregon State, may one day be used to deliver parcels.
Again: no one more than Amazon stands to profit from cracking this technology. The line from robotics research to profit is very clear.
So, perhaps one day Amazon will have robots that can move around and manipulate their environments. But they’re also working on intelligence that will guide those robots and make them truly useful for a variety of tasks. Amazon has an AI, or at least the framework for an AI: it’s called Alexa, and it’s in tens of millions of homes. The Alexa Prize, another multi-million-dollar competition, is attempting to make Alexa more social.
To develop a conversational AI, at least using the current methods of machine learning, you need data on tens of millions of conversations. You need to understand how people will try to interact with the AI. Amazon has access to this in Alexa, and they’re using it. As owners of the leading voice-activated personal assistant, they have an ecosystem of developers creating apps for Alexa. It will be integrated with the smart home and the Internet of Things. It is a very marketable product, a stepping stone for robot intelligence.
What’s more, the company can benefit from its huge sales infrastructure. For Amazon, having an AI in your home is ideal, because it can persuade you to buy more products through its website. Unlike companies like Google, Amazon has an easy way to make a direct profit from IoT devices, which could fuel funding.
For a humanoid robot to be truly useful, though, it will need vision and intelligence. It will have to understand and interpret its environment, and react accordingly. The way humans learn about our environment is by getting out and seeing it. This is something that, for example, an Alexa coupled to smart glasses would be very capable of doing. There are rumors that Alexa’s AI will soon be used in security cameras, which is an ideal stepping stone task to train an AI to process images from its environment, truly perceiving the world and any threats it might contain.
It’s a slight exaggeration to say that Amazon is in the process of building a secret robot army. The gulf between our sci-fi vision of robots that can intelligently serve us, rather than mindlessly assemble cars, is still vast. But in quietly assembling many of the technologies needed for intelligent, multi-purpose robotics—and with the unique stepping stones they have along the way—Amazon might just be poised to leap that gulf. As if by magic.
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