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We usually think of robots as taking the place of humans in various tasks, but robots of all kinds can also enhance human capabilities. This may be especially true for people with disabilities. And while the Cybathlon competition showed what's possible when cutting-edge research robotics is paired with expert humans, that competition isn't necessarily reflective of the kind of robotics available to most people today.
Kinova Robotics's Jaco arm is an assistive robotic arm designed to be mounted on an electric wheelchair. With six degrees of freedom plus a three-fingered gripper, the lightweight carbon fiber arm is frequently used in research because it's rugged and versatile. But from the start, Kinova created it to add autonomy to the lives of people with mobility constraints.
Earlier this year, Kinova shared the story of Mary Nelson, an 11-year-old girl with spinal muscular atrophy, who uses her Jaco arm to show her horse in competition. Spinal muscular atrophy is a neuromuscular disorder that impairs voluntary muscle movement, including muscles that help with respiration, and Mary depends on a power chair for mobility.
We wanted to learn more about how Kinova designs its Jaco arm, and what that means for folks like Mary, so we spoke with both Kinova and Mary's parents to find out how much of a difference a robot arm can make.
IEEE Spectrum: How did Mary interact with the world before having her arm, and what was involved in the decision to try a robot arm in general? And why then Kinova's arm specifically?
Ryan Nelson: Mary interacts with the world much like you and I do, she just uses different tools to do so. For example, she is 100 percent independent using her computer, iPad, and phone, and she prefers to use a mouse. However, she cannot move a standard mouse, so she connects her wheelchair to each device with Bluetooth to move the mouse pointer/cursor using her wheelchair joystick.
For years, we had a Manfrotto magic arm and super clamp attached to her wheelchair and she used that much like the robotic arm. We could put a baseball bat, paint brush, toys, etc. in the super clamp so that Mary could hold the object and interact as physically able children do. Mary has always wanted to be more independent, so we knew the robotic arm was something she must try. We had seen videos of the Kinova arm on YouTube and on their website, so we reached out to them to get a trial.
Can you tell us about the Jaco arm, and how the process of designing an assistive robot arm is different from the process of designing a conventional robot arm?
Nathaniel Swenson, Director of U.S. Operations — Assistive Technologies at Kinova: Jaco is our flagship robotic arm. Inspired by our CEO's uncle and its namesake, Jacques “Jaco” Forest, it was designed as assistive technology with power wheelchair users in mind.
The primary differences between Jaco and our other robots, such as the new Gen3, which was designed to meet the needs of academic and industry research teams, are speed and power consumption. Other robots such as the Gen3 can move faster and draw slightly more power because they aren't limited by the battery size of power wheelchairs. Depending on the use case, they might not interact directly with a human being in the research setting and can safely move more quickly. Jaco is designed to move at safe speeds and make direct contact with the end user and draw very little power directly from their wheelchair.
The most important consideration in the design process of an assistive robot is the safety of the end user. Jaco users operate their robots through their existing drive controls to assist them in daily activities such as eating, drinking, and opening doors and they don't have to worry about the robot draining their chair's batteries throughout the day. The elegant design that results from meeting the needs of our power chair users has benefited subsequent iterations, [of products] such as the Gen3, as well: Kinova's robots are lightweight, extremely efficient in their power consumption, and safe for direct human-robot interaction. This is not true of conventional industrial robots.
What was the learning process like for Mary? Does she feel like she's mastered the arm, or is it a continuous learning process?
Ryan Nelson: The learning process was super quick for Mary. However, she amazes us every day with the new things that she can do with the arm. Literally within minutes of installing the arm on her chair, Mary had it figured out and was shaking hands with the Kinova rep. The control of the arm is super intuitive and the Kinova reps say that SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) children are perfect users because they are so smart—they pick it up right away. Mary has learned to do many fine motor tasks with the arm, from picking up small objects like a pencil or a ruler, to adjusting her glasses on her face, to doing science experiments.
Photo: The Nelson Family
Mary uses a headset microphone to amplify her voice, and she will use the arm and finger to adjust the microphone in front of her mouth after she is done eating (also a task she mastered quickly with the arm). Additionally, Mary will use the arms to reach down and adjust her feet or leg by grabbing them with the arm and moving them to a more comfortable position. All of these examples are things she never really asked us to do, but something she needed and just did on her own, with the help of the arm.
What is the most common feedback that you get from new users of the arm? How about from experienced users who have been using the arm for a while?
Nathaniel Swenson: New users always tell us how excited they are to see what they can accomplish with their new Jaco. From day one, they are able to do things that they have longed to do without assistance from a caregiver: take a drink of water or coffee, scratch an itch, push the button to open an “accessible” door or elevator, or even feed their baby with a bottle.
The most common feedback I hear from experienced users is that Jaco has changed their life. Our experienced users like Mary are rock stars: everywhere they go, people get excited to see what they'll do next. The difference between a new user and an experienced user could be as little as two weeks. People who operate power wheelchairs every day are already expert drivers and we just add a new “gear” to their chair: robot mode. It's fun to see how quickly new users master the intuitive Jaco control modes.
What changes would you like to see in the next generation of Jaco arm?
Ryan Nelson: Titanium fingers! Make it lift heavier objects, hold heavier items like a baseball bat, machine gun, flame thrower, etc., and Mary literally said this last night: “I wish the arm moved fast enough to play the piano.”
Nathaniel Swenson: I love the idea of titanium fingers! Jaco's fingers are made from a flexible polymer and designed to avoid harm. This allows the fingers to bend or dislocate, rather than break, but it also means they are not as durable as a material like titanium. Increased payload, the ability to manipulate heavier objects, requires increased power consumption. We've struck a careful balance between providing enough strength to accomplish most medically necessary Activities of Daily Living and efficient use of the power chair's batteries.
We take Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics pretty seriously. When we start to combine machine guns, flame throwers, and artificial intelligence with robots, I get very nervous!
I wish the arm moved fast enough to play the piano, too! I am also a musician and I share Mary's dream of an assistive robot that would enable her to make music. In the meantime, while we work on that, please enjoy this beautiful violin piece by Manami Ito and her one-of-a-kind violin prosthesis:
To what extent could more autonomy for the arm be helpful for users? What would be involved in implementing that?
Nathaniel Swenson: Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning will introduce greater autonomy in future iterations of assistive robots. This will enable them to perform more complex tasks that aren't currently possible, and enable them to accomplish routine tasks more quickly and with less input than the current manual control requires.
For assistive robots, implementation of greater autonomy involves a focus on end-user safety and improvements in the robot's awareness of its environment. Autonomous robots that work in close proximity with humans need vision. They must be able to see to avoid collisions and they use haptic feedback to tell the robot how much force is being exerted on objects. All of these technologies exist, but the largest obstacle to bringing them to the assistive technology market is to prove to the health insurance companies who will fund them that they are both safe and medically necessary. Continue reading
When every other tech startup claims to use artificial intelligence, it can be tough to figure out if an AI service or product works as advertised. In the midst of the AI “gold rush,” how can you separate the nuggets from the fool’s gold?
There’s no shortage of cautionary tales involving overhyped AI claims. And applying AI technologies to health care, education, and law enforcement mean that getting it wrong can have real consequences for society—not just for investors who bet on the wrong unicorn.
So IEEE Spectrum asked experts to share their tips for how to identify AI hype in press releases, news articles, research papers, and IPO filings.
“It can be tricky, because I think the people who are out there selling the AI hype—selling this AI snake oil—are getting more sophisticated over time,” says Tim Hwang, director of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative.
The term “AI” is perhaps most frequently used to describe machine learning algorithms (and deep learning algorithms, which require even less human guidance) that analyze huge amounts of data and make predictions based on patterns that humans might miss. These popular forms of AI are mostly suited to specialized tasks, such as automatically recognizing certain objects within photos. For that reason, they are sometimes described as “weak” or “narrow” AI.
Some researchers and thought leaders like to talk about the idea of “artificial general intelligence” or “strong AI” that has human-level capacity and flexibility to handle many diverse intellectual tasks. But for now, this type of AI remains firmly in the realm of science fiction and is far from being realized in the real world.
“AI has no well-defined meaning and many so-called AI companies are simply trying to take advantage of the buzz around that term,” says Arvind Narayanan, a computer scientist at Princeton University. “Companies have even been caught claiming to use AI when, in fact, the task is done by human workers.”
Here are three ways to recognize AI hype.
Look for Buzzwords
One red flag is what Hwang calls the “hype salad.” This means stringing together the term “AI” with many other tech buzzwords such as “blockchain” or “Internet of Things.” That doesn’t automatically disqualify the technology, but spotting a high volume of buzzwords in a post, pitch, or presentation should raise questions about what exactly the company or individual has developed.
Other experts agree that strings of buzzwords can be a red flag. That’s especially true if the buzzwords are never really explained in technical detail, and are simply tossed around as vague, poorly-defined terms, says Marzyeh Ghassemi, a computer scientist and biomedical engineer at the University of Toronto in Canada.
“I think that if it looks like a Google search—picture ‘interpretable blockchain AI deep learning medicine’—it's probably not high-quality work,” Ghassemi says.
Hwang also suggests mentally replacing all mentions of “AI” in an article with the term “magical fairy dust.” It’s a way of seeing whether an individual or organization is treating the technology like magic. If so—that’s another good reason to ask more questions about what exactly the AI technology involves.
And even the visual imagery used to illustrate AI claims can indicate that an individual or organization is overselling the technology.
“I think that a lot of the people who work on machine learning on a day-to-day basis are pretty humble about the technology, because they’re largely confronted with how frequently it just breaks and doesn't work,” Hwang says. “And so I think that if you see a company or someone representing AI as a Terminator head, or a big glowing HAL eye or something like that, I think it’s also worth asking some questions.”
Interrogate the Data
It can be hard to evaluate AI claims without any relevant expertise, says Ghassemi at the University of Toronto. Even experts need to know the technical details of the AI algorithm in question and have some access to the training data that shaped the AI model’s predictions. Still, savvy readers with some basic knowledge of applied statistics can search for red flags.
To start, readers can look for possible bias in training data based on small sample sizes or a skewed population that fails to reflect the broader population, Ghassemi says. After all, an AI model trained only on health data from white men would not necessarily achieve similar results for other populations of patients.
“For me, a red flag is not demonstrating deep knowledge of how your labels are defined.”
—Marzyeh Ghassemi, University of Toronto
How machine learning and deep learning models perform also depends on how well humans labeled the sample datasets use to train these programs. This task can be straightforward when labeling photos of cats versus dogs, but gets more complicated when assigning disease diagnoses to certain patient cases.
Medical experts frequently disagree with each other on diagnoses—which is why many patients seek a second opinion. Not surprisingly, this ambiguity can also affect the diagnostic labels that experts assign in training datasets. “For me, a red flag is not demonstrating deep knowledge of how your labels are defined,” Ghassemi says.
Such training data can also reflect the cultural stereotypes and biases of the humans who labeled the data, says Narayanan at Princeton University. Like Ghassemi, he recommends taking a hard look at exactly what the AI has learned: “A good way to start critically evaluating AI claims is by asking questions about the training data.”
Another red flag is presenting an AI system’s performance through a single accuracy figure without much explanation, Narayanan says. Claiming that an AI model achieves “99 percent” accuracy doesn’t mean much without knowing the baseline for comparison—such as whether other systems have already achieved 99 percent accuracy—or how well that accuracy holds up in situations beyond the training dataset.
Narayanan also emphasized the need to ask questions about an AI model’s false positive rate—the rate of making wrong predictions about the presence of a given condition. Even if the false positive rate of a hypothetical AI service is just one percent, that could have major consequences if that service ends up screening millions of people for cancer.
Readers can also consider whether using AI in a given situation offers any meaningful improvement compared to traditional statistical methods, says Clayton Aldern, a data scientist and journalist who serves as managing director for Caldern LLC. He gave the hypothetical example of a “super-duper-fancy deep learning model” that achieves a prediction accuracy of 89 percent, compared to a “little polynomial regression model” that achieves 86 percent on the same dataset.
“We're talking about a three-percentage-point increase on something that you learned about in Algebra 1,” Aldern says. “So is it worth the hype?”
Don’t Ignore the Drawbacks
The hype surrounding AI isn’t just about the technical merits of services and products driven by machine learning. Overblown claims about the beneficial impacts of AI technology—or vague promises to address ethical issues related to deploying it—should also raise red flags.
“If a company promises to use its tech ethically, it is important to question if its business model aligns with that promise,” Narayanan says. “Even if employees have noble intentions, it is unrealistic to expect the company as a whole to resist financial imperatives.”
One example might be a company with a business model that depends on leveraging customers’ personal data. Such companies “tend to make empty promises when it comes to privacy,” Narayanan says. And, if companies hire workers to produce training data, it’s also worth asking whether the companies treat those workers ethically.
The transparency—or lack thereof—about any AI claim can also be telling. A company or research group can minimize concerns by publishing technical claims in peer-reviewed journals or allowing credible third parties to evaluate their AI without giving away big intellectual property secrets, Narayanan says. Excessive secrecy is a big red flag.
With these strategies, you don’t need to be a computer engineer or data scientist to start thinking critically about AI claims. And, Narayanan says, the world needs many people from different backgrounds for societies to fully consider the real-world implications of AI.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story misspelled Clayton Aldern’s last name as Alderton. Continue reading