Tag Archives: thought

#436491 The Year’s Most Fascinating Tech ...

Last Saturday we took a look at some of the most-read Singularity Hub articles from 2019. This week, we’re featuring some of our favorite articles from the last year. As opposed to short pieces about what’s happening, these are long reads about why it matters and what’s coming next. Some of them make the news while others frame the news, go deep on big ideas, go behind the scenes, or explore the human side of technological progress.

We hope you find them as fascinating, inspiring, and illuminating as we did.

DeepMind and Google: The Battle to Control Artificial Intelligence
Hal Hodson | 1843
“[DeepMind cofounder and CEO Demis] Hassabis thought DeepMind would be a hybrid: it would have the drive of a startup, the brains of the greatest universities, and the deep pockets of one of the world’s most valuable companies. Every element was in place to hasten the arrival of [artificial general intelligence] and solve the causes of human misery.”

The Most Powerful Person in Silicon Valley
Katrina Brooker | Fast Company
“Billionaire Masayoshi Son—not Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg—has the most audacious vision for an AI-powered utopia where machines control how we live. And he’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars to realize it. Are you ready to live in Masa World?”

AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld
Kevin Kelly | Wired
“Eventually this melded world will be the size of our planet. It will be humanity’s greatest achievement, creating new levels of wealth, new social problems, and uncountable opportunities for billions of people. There are no experts yet to make this world; you are not late.”

Behind the Scenes of a Radical New Cancer Cure
Ilana Yurkiewicz | Undark
“I remember the first time I watched a patient get his Day 0 infusion. It felt anti-climactic. The entire process took about 15 minutes. The CAR-T cells are invisible to the naked eye, housed in a small plastic bag containing clear liquid. ‘That’s it?’ my patient asked when the nurse said it was over. The infusion part is easy. The hard part is everything that comes next.”

The Promise and Price of Cellular Therapies
Siddhartha Mukherjee | The New Yorker
“We like to imagine medical revolutions as, well, revolutionary—propelled forward through leaps of genius and technological innovation. But they are also evolutionary, nudged forward through the optimization of design and manufacture.”

Impossible Foods’ Rising Empire of Almost Meat
Chris Ip | Engadget
“Impossible says it wants to ultimately create a parallel universe of ersatz animal products from steak to eggs. …Yet as Impossible ventures deeper into the culinary uncanny valley, it also needs society to discard a fundamental cultural idea that dates back millennia and accept a new truth: Meat doesn’t have to come from animals.”

Inside the Amazon Warehouse Where Humans and Machines Become One
Matt Simon | Wired
“Seen from above, the scale of the system is dizzying. My robot, a little orange slab known as a ‘drive’ (or more formally and mythically, Pegasus), is just one of hundreds of its kind swarming a 125,000-square-foot ‘field’ pockmarked with chutes. It’s a symphony of electric whirring, with robots pausing for one another at intersections and delivering their packages to the slides.”

Boston Dynamics’ Robots Are Preparing to Leave the Lab—Is the World Ready?
James Vincent | The Verge
“After decades of kicking machines in parking lots, the company is set to launch its first ever commercial bot later this year: the quadrupedal Spot. It’s a crucial test for a company that’s spent decades pursuing long-sighted R&D. And more importantly, the success—or failure—of Spot will tell us a lot about our own robot future. Are we ready for machines to walk among us?”

I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell
Kashmir Hill | Gizmodo
“Critics of the big tech companies are often told, ‘If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.’ I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not—with the exception of Apple. …These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows.”

Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry
Paul Ford | Wired
“The mysteries of software caught my eye when I was a boy, and I still see it with the same wonder, even though I’m now an adult. Proudshamed, yes, but I still love it, the mess of it, the code and toolkits, down to the pixels and the processors, and up to the buses and bridges. I love the whole made world. But I can’t deny that the miracle is over, and that there is an unbelievable amount of work left for us to do.”

The Peculiar Blindness of Experts
David Epstein | The Atlantic
“In business, esteemed (and lavishly compensated) forecasters routinely are wildly wrong in their predictions of everything from the next stock-market correction to the next housing boom. Reliable insight into the future is possible, however. It just requires a style of thinking that’s uncommon among experts who are certain that their deep knowledge has granted them a special grasp of what is to come.”

The Most Controversial Tree in the World
Rowan Jacobson | Pacific Standard
“…we are all GMOs, the beneficiaries of freakishly unlikely genetic mash-ups, and the real Island of Dr. Moreau is that blue-green botanical garden positioned third from the sun. Rather than changing the nature of nature, as I once thought, this might just be the very nature of nature.”

How an Augmented Reality Game Escalated Into Real-World Spy Warfare
Elizabeth Ballou | Vice
“In Ingress, players accept that every park and train station could be the site of an epic showdown, but that’s only the first step. The magic happens when other people accept that, too. When players feel like that magic is real, there are few limits to what they’ll do or where they’ll go for the sake of the game. ”

The Shady Cryptocurrency Boom on the Post-Soviet Frontier
Hannah Lucinda Smith | Wired
“…although the tourists won’t guess it as they stand at Kuchurgan’s gates, admiring how the evening light reflects off the silver plaque of Lenin, this plant is pumping out juice to a modern-day gold rush: a cryptocurrency boom that is underway all across the former Soviet Union, from the battlefields of eastern Ukraine to time-warp enclaves like Transnistria and freshly annexed Crimea.”

Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition
Ross Andersen | The Atlantic
“This idea that animals are conscious was long unpopular in the West, but it has lately found favor among scientists who study animal cognition. …For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.”

I Wrote This on a 30-Year-Old Computer
Ian Bogost | The Atlantic
“[Back then] computing was an accompaniment to life, rather than the sieve through which all ideas and activities must filter. That makes using this 30-year-old device a surprising joy, one worth longing for on behalf of what it was at the time, rather than for the future it inaugurated.”

Image Credit: Wes Hicks / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436263 Skydio 2 Review: This Is the Drone You ...

Let me begin this review by saying that the Skydio 2 is one of the most impressive robots that I have ever seen. Over the last decade, I’ve spent enough time around robots to have a very good sense of what kinds of things are particularly challenging for them, and to set my expectations accordingly. Those expectations include things like “unstructured environments are basically impossible” and “full autonomy is impractically expensive” and “robot videos rarely reflect reality.”

Skydio’s newest drone is an exception to all of this. It’s able to fly autonomously at speed through complex environments in challenging real-world conditions in a way that’s completely effortless and stress-free for the end user, allowing you to capture the kind of video that would be otherwise impossible, even (I’m guessing) for professional drone pilots. When you see this technology in action, it’s (almost) indistinguishable from magic.

Skydio 2 Price
To be clear, the Skydio 2 is not without compromises, and the price of $999 (on pre-order with delivery of the next batch expected in spring of 2020) requires some justification. But the week I’ve had with this drone has left me feeling like its fundamental autonomous capability is so far beyond just about anything that I’ve ever experienced that I’m questioning why I would every fly anything else ever again.

We’ve written extensively about Skydio, beginning in early 2016 when the company posted a video of a prototype drone dodging trees while following a dude on a bike. Even three years ago, Skydio’s tech was way better than anything we’d seen outside of a research lab, and in early 2018, they introduced their first consumer product, the Skydio R1. A little over a year later, Skydio has introduced the Skydio 2, which is smaller, smarter, and much more affordable. Here’s an overview video just to get you caught up:

Skydio sent me a Skydio 2 review unit last week, and while I’m reasonably experienced with drones in general, this is the first time I’ve tried a Skydio drone in person. I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and I was absolutely blown away. Like, I was giggling to myself while running through the woods as the drone zoomed around, deftly avoiding trees and keeping me in sight. Robots aren’t supposed to be this good.

A week is really not enough time to explore everything that the Skydio can do, especially Thanksgiving week in Washington, D.C. (a no-fly zone) in early winter. But I found a nearby state park in which I could legally and safely fly the drone, and I did my best to put the Skydio 2 through its paces.

Note: Throughout this review, we’ve got a bunch of GIFs to help illustrate different features of the drone. To fit them all in, these GIFs had to be heavily compressed. Underneath each GIF is a timestamped link to this YouTube video (also available at the bottom of the post), which you can click on to see the an extended cut of the original 4K 30 fps footage. And there’s a bunch of interesting extra video in there as well.

Skydio 2 Specs

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the navigation cameras.

The Skydio 2 both looks and feels like a well-designed and carefully thought-out drone. It’s solid, and a little on the heavy side as far as drones go—it’s primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The blue and black color scheme is far more attractive than you typically see with drones.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

To detect and avoid obstacles, the Skydio 2 uses an array of six 4K hemispherical cameras that feed data into an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 at 30 fps, with the drone processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path.

The Skydio 2 is built around an array of six hemispherical obstacle-avoidance cameras and the NVIDIA Jetson TX2 computing module that they’re connected to. This defines the placement of the gimbal, the motors and props, and the battery, since all of this stuff has to be as much as possible out of the view of the cameras in order for the drone to effectively avoid obstacles in any direction.

Without the bottom-mounted battery attached, the drone is quite flat. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the obstacle-avoidance cameras. These hemispherical cameras are on the end of each of the prop arms as well as above and below the body of the drone. They look awfully exposed, even though each is protected from ground contact by a little fin. You need to make sure these cameras are clean and smudge-free, and Skydio includes a cleaning cloth for this purpose. Underneath the drone there are slots for microSD cards, one for recording from the camera and a second one that the drone uses to store data. The attention to detail extends to the SD card insertion, which has a sloped channel that guides the card securely into its slot.

Once you snap the battery in, the drone goes from looking streamlined to looking a little chubby. Relative to other drones, the battery almost seems like an afterthought, like Skydio designed the drone and then remembered, “oops we have to add a battery somewhere, let’s just kludge it onto the bottom.” But again, the reason for this is to leave room inside the body for the NVIDIA TX2, while making sure that the battery stays out of view of the obstacle avoidance cameras.

The magnetic latching system for the battery is both solid and satisfying. I’m not sure why it’s necessary, strictly speaking, but I do like it, and it doesn’t seem like the battery will fly off even during the most aggressive maneuvers. Each battery includes an LED array that will display its charge level in 25 percent increments, as well as a button that you push to turn the drone on and off. Charging takes place via a USB-C port in the top of the drone, which I don’t like, because it means that the batteries can’t be charged on their own (like the Parrot Anafi’s battery), and that you can’t charge one battery while flying with another, like basically every other drone ever. A separate battery charger that will charge two at once is available from Skydio for an eyebrow-raising $129.

I appreciate that all of Skydio’s stuff (batteries, controller, and beacon) charges via USB-C, though. The included USB-C adapter with its beefy cable will output at up to 65 watts, which’ll charge a mostly depleted battery in under an hour. The drone turns itself on while charging, which seems unnecessary.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is not foldable, making it not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones. But it does come with a nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case.

The most obvious compromise that Skydio made with the Skydio 2 is that the drone is not foldable. Skydio CEO Adam Bry told us that adding folding joints to the arms of the Skydio 2 would have made calibrating all six cameras a nightmare and significantly impacted performance. This makes complete sense, of course, but it does mean that the Skydio 2 is not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Folded and unfolded: The Skydio 2 compared to the Parrot Anafi (upper left) and the DJI Mavic Pro (upper right).

The Skydio 2 does come with a very nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case. Still, it’s just not as convenient to toss into a backpack as my Anafi, although the Mavic Mini might be even more portable.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

While the Skydio 2’s case is relatively compact, the non-foldable drone is overall a significantly larger package than the Parrot Anafi.

The design of the drone leads to some other compromises as well. Since landing gear would, I assume, occlude the camera system, the drone lands directly on the bottom of its battery pack, which has a slightly rubberized pad about the size of a playing card. This does’t feel particularly stable unless you end up on a very flat surface, and made me concerned for the exposed cameras underneath the drone as well as the lower set of props. I’d recommend hand takeoffs and landings—more on those later.

Skydio 2 Camera System

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2’s primary camera is a Sony IMX577 1/2.3″ 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. It’s mounted to a three-axis gimbal and records 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps.

The Skydio 2 comes with a three-axis gimbal supporting a 12-megapixel camera, just enough to record 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps. Skydio has provided plenty of evidence that its imaging system is at least as good if not better than other drone cameras. Tested against my Mavic Pro and Parrot Anafi, I found no reason to doubt that. To be clear, I didn’t do exhaustive pixel-peeping comparisons between them, you’re just getting my subjective opinion that the Skydio 2 has a totally decent camera that you won’t be disappointed with. I will say that I found the HDR photo function to be not all that great under the few situations in which I tested it—after looking at a few muddy sunset shots, I turned it off and was much happier.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2’s 12-megapixel camera is solid, although we weren’t impressed with the HDR option.

The video stabilization is fantastic, to the point where watching the video footage can be underwhelming because it doesn’t reflect the motion of the drone. I almost wish there was a way to change to unstabilized (or less-stabilized) video so that the viewer could get a little more of a wild ride. Or, ideally, there’d be a way for the drone to provide you with a visualization of what it was doing using the data collected by its cameras. That’s probably wishful thinking, though. The drone itself doesn’t record audio because all you’d get would be an annoying buzz, but the app does record audio, so the audio from your phone gets combined with the drone video. Don’t expect great quality, but it’s better than nothing.

Skydio 2 App
The app is very simple compared to every other drone app I’ve tried, and that’s a good thing. Here’s what it looks like:

Image: Skydio

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you.

You get the controls that you need and the information that you need, and nothing else. Manual flight with the on-screen buttons works adequately, and the double-tap to fly function on the phone works surprisingly well, making it easy to direct the drone to a particular spot above the ground.

The settings menus are limited but functional, allowing you to change settings for the camera and a few basic tweaks for controlling the drone. One unique setting to the Skydio 2 is the height floor—since the drone only avoids static obstacles, you can set it to maintain a height of at least 8 feet above the ground while flying autonomously to make sure that if you’re flying around other people, it won’t run into anyone who isn’t absurdly tall and therefore asking for it.

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them in the app, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you, and in addition, you can select “one-shot” skills that involve the drone performing a specific maneuver before returning to the previously selected cinematic skill. For example, you can tell the drone to orbit around you, and then do a “rocket” one-shot where it’ll fly straight up above you (recording the whole time, of course), before returning to its orbiting.

After you’re done flying, you can scroll through your videos and easily clip out excerpts from them and save them to your phone for sharing. Again, it’s a fairly simple interface without a lot of options. You could call it limited, I guess, but I appreciate that it just does a few things that you care about and otherwise doesn’t clutter itself up.

The real limitation of the app is that it uses Wi-Fi to connect to the Skydio 2, which restricts the range. To fly much beyond a hundred meters or so, you’ll need to use the controller or beacon instead.

Skydio 2 Controller and Beacon

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

While the Skydio 2 controller provides a better hands-on flight experience than with the phone, plus an extended range of up to 3.5 km, more experienced pilots may find manual control a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your maneuvers when you start getting close to objects.

I was looking forward to using the controller, because with every other drone I’ve had, the precision that a physically controller provides is, I find, mandatory for a good flying experience and to get the photos and videos that you want. With Skydio 2, that’s all out the window. It’s not that the controller is useless or anything, it’s just that because the drone tracks you and avoids obstacles on its own, that level of control precision becomes largely unnecessary.

The controller itself is perfectly fine. It’s a rebranded Parrot Skycontroller3, which is the same as the one that you get with a Parrot Anafi. It’s too bad that the sticks don’t unscrew to make it a little more portable, and overall it’s functional rather than fancy, but it feels good to use and includes a sizeable antenna that makes a significant difference to the range that you get (up to 3.5 kilometers).

You definitely get a better hands-on flight experience with the controller than with the phone, so if you want to (say) zip the drone around some big open space for fun, it’s good for that. And it’s nice to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and let them take it for a spin without freaking out about them crashing it the whole time. For more experienced pilots, though, the controller is ultimately just a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your control when you start getting close to objects, which (again) limits how useful the controller is relative to your phone.

I do still prefer the controller over the phone, but I’m not sure that it’s worth the extra $150, unless you plan to fly the Skydio 2 at very long distances or primarily in manual mode. And honestly, if either of those two things are your top priority, the Skydio 2 is probably not the drone for you.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 beacon uses GPS tracking to help the drone follow you, extending range up to 1.5 km. You can also fly the with the beacon alone, no phone necessary.

The purpose of the beacon, according to Skydio, is to give the drone a way of tracking you if it can’t see you, which can happen, albeit infrequently. My initial impression of the beacon was that it was primarily useful as a range-extending bridge between my phone and the drone. But I accidentally left my phone at home one day (oops) and had to fly the drone with only the beacon, and it was a surprisingly decent experience. The beacon allows for full manual control of a sort—you can tap different buttons to rotate, fly forward, and ascend or descend. This is sufficient for takeoff, landing, to make sure that the drone is looking at you when you engage visual tracking, and to rescue it if it gets trapped somewhere.

The rest of the beacon’s control functions are centered around a few different tracking modes, and with these, it works just about as well as your phone. You have fewer options overall, but all the basic stuff is there with just a few intuitive button clicks, including tracking range and angle. If you’re willing to deal with this relatively minor compromise, it’s nice to not have your phone available for other things rather than being monopolized by the drone.

Skydio 2 In Flight

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Hand takeoffs are simple and reliable.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Starting up the Skydio 2 doesn’t require any kind of unusual calibration steps or anything like that. It prefers to be kept still, but you can start it up while holding it, it’ll just take a few seconds longer to tell you that it’s ready to go. While the drone will launch from any flat surface with significant clearance around it (it’ll tell you if it needs more room), the small footprint of the battery means that I was more comfortable hand launching it. This is not a “throw” launch; you just let the drone rest on your palm, tell it to take off, and then stay still while it gets its motors going and then gently lifts off. The lift off is so gentle that you have to be careful not to pull your hand away too soon—I did that once and the drone, being not quite ready, dropped towards the ground, but managed to recover without much drama.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Hand landings always look scary, but the Skydio 2 is incredibly gentle. After trying this once, it became the only way I ever landed the drone.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Catching the drone for landing is perhaps very slightly more dangerous, but not any more difficult. You put the drone above and in front of you facing away, tell it to land in the app or with the beacon, and then put your hand underneath it to grasp it as it slowly descends. It settles delicately and promptly turns itself off. Every drone should land this way. The battery pack provides a good place to grip, although you do have to be mindful of the forward set of props, which (since they’re the pair that are beneath the body of drone) are quite close to your fingers. You’ll certainly be mindful after you catch a blade with your fingers once. Which I did. For the purposes of this review and totally not by accident. No damage, for the record.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

You won’t be disappointed with the Skydio 2’s in-flight performance, unless you’re looking for a dedicated racing drone.

In normal flight, the Skydio 2 performs as well as you’d expect. It’s stable and manages light to moderate wind without any problems, although I did notice some occasional lateral drifting when the drone should have been in a stationary hover. While the controller gains are adjustable, the Skydio 2 isn’t quite as aggressive in flight as my Mavic Pro on Sport Mode, but again, if you’re looking for a high-speed drone, that’s really not what the Skydio is all about.

The Skydio 2 is substantially louder than my Anafi, although the Anafi is notably quiet for a drone. It’s not annoying to hear (not a high-pitched whine), but you can hear it from a ways away, and farther away than my Mavic Pro. I’m not sure whether that’s because of the absolute volume or the volume plus the pitch. In some ways, this is a feature, since you can hear the drone following you even if you’re not looking at it, you just need to be aware of the noise it makes when you’re flying it around people.

Obstacle Avoidance
The primary reason Skydio 2 is the drone that you want to fly is because of its autonomous subject tracking and obstacle avoidance. Skydio’s PR videos make this capability look almost too good, and since I hadn’t tried out one of their drones before, the first thing I did with it was exactly what you’d expect: attempt to fly it directly into the nearest tree.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 deftly slides around trees and branches. The control inputs here were simple “forward” or “turn,” all obstacle avoidance is autonomous.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

And it just won’t do it. It slows down a bit, and then slides right around one tree after another, going over and under and around branches. I pointed the drone into a forest and just held down “forward” and away it went, without any fuss, effortlessly ducking and weaving its way around. Of course, it wasn’t effortless at all—six 4K cameras were feeding data into the NVIDIA TX2 at 30 fps, and the drone was processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path while simultaneously taking into account where I wanted it to go. I spent about 10 more minutes doing my level best to crash the drone into anything at all using a flying technique probably best described as “reckless,” but the drone was utterly unfazed. It’s incredible.

What knocked my socks off was telling the drone to pass through treetops—in the clip below, I’m just telling the drone to fly straight down. Watch as it weaves its way through gaps between the branches:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The result of parking the Skydio 2 above some trees and holding “down” on the controller is this impressive fully autonomous descent through the branches.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Here’s one more example, where I sent the drone across a lake and started poking around in a tree. Sometimes the Skydio 2 isn’t sure where you want it to go, and you have to give it a little bit of a nudge in a clear direction, but that’s it.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

In obstacle-heavy environments, the Skydio 2 prudently slows down, but it can pick its way through almost anything that it can see.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of the Skydio 2’s intelligence is based on vision. It uses cameras to see the world, which means that it has similar challenges as your eyes do. Specifically, Skydio warns against flying in the following conditions:

Skydio 2 can’t see certain visually challenging obstacles. Do not fly around thin branches, telephone or power lines, ropes, netting, wires, chain link fencing or other objects less than ½ inch in diameter.
Do not fly around transparent surfaces like windows or reflective surfaces like mirrors greater than 60 cm wide.
When the sun is low on the horizon, it can temporarily blind Skydio 2’s cameras depending on the angle of flight. Your drone may be cautious or jerky when flying directly toward the sun.

Basically, if you’d have trouble seeing a thing, or seeing under some specific flight conditions, then the Skydio 2 almost certainly will also. It gets even more problematic when challenging obstacles are combined with challenging flight conditions, which is what I’m pretty sure led to the only near-crash I had with the drone. Here’s a video:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Flying around very thin branches and into the sun can cause problems for the Skydio 2’s obstacle avoidance.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

I had the Skydio 2 set to follow me on my bike (more about following and tracking in a bit). It was mid afternoon, but since it’s late fall here in Washington, D.C., the sun doesn’t get much higher than 30 degrees above the horizon. Late fall also means that most of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, and so there are a bunch of skinny branches all over the place. The drone was doing a pretty good job of following me along the road at a relatively slow speed, and then it clipped the branch that you can just barely see in the video above. It recovered in an acrobatic maneuver that has been mostly video-stabilized out, and resumed tracking me before I freaked and told it to land. You can see another example here, where the drone (again) clips a branch that has the sun behind it, and this clip shows me stopping my bike before the drone runs into another branch in a similar orientation. As the video shows, it’s very hard to see the branches until it’s too late.

As far as I can tell, the drone is no worse for wear from any of this, apart from a small nick in one of the props. But, this is a good illustration of a problematic situation for the Skydio 2: flying into a low sun angle around small bare branches. Should I not have been flying the drone in this situation? It’s hard to say. These probably qualify as “thin branches,” although there was plenty of room along with middle of the road. There is an open question with the Skydio 2 as to exactly how much responsibility the user should have about when and where it’s safe to fly—for branches, how thin is too thin? How low can the sun be? What if the branches are only kinda thin and the sun is only kinda low, but it’s also a little windy? Better to be safe than sorry, of course, but there’s really no way for the user (or the drone) to know what it can’t handle until it can’t handle it.

Edge cases like these aside, the obstacle avoidance just works. Even if you’re not deliberately trying to fly into branches, it’s keeping a lookout for you all the time, which means that flying the drone goes from somewhat stressful to just pure fun. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is to be able to fly without worrying about running into things, and how great it feels to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and say, with complete confidence, “go ahead, fly it around!”

Skydio 2 vs. DJI Mavic

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Both the Skydio 2 and many models of DJI’s Mavic use visual obstacle avoidance, but the Skydio 2 is so much more advanced that you can’t really compare the two systems.

It’s important to note that there’s a huge difference between the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with a DJI Mavic, and the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with the Skydio 2. The objective of the Mavic’s obstacle avoidance is really there to prevent you from accidentally running into things, and in that capacity, it usually works. But there are two things to keep in mind here—first, not running into things is not the same as avoiding things, because avoiding things means planning several steps ahead, not just one step.

Second, there’s the fact that the Mavic’s obstacle detection only works most of the time. Fundamentally, I don’t trust my Mavic Pro, because sometimes the safety system doesn’t kick in for whatever reason and the drone ends up alarmingly close to something. And that’s actually fine, because with the Mavic, I expect to be piloting it. It’s for this same reason that I don’t care that my Parrot Anafi doesn’t have obstacle avoidance at all: I’m piloting it anyway, and I’m a careful pilot, so it just doesn’t matter. The Skydio 2 is totally and completely different. It’s in a class by itself, and you can’t compare what it can do to what anything else out there right now. Period.

Skydio 2 Tracking
Skydio’s big selling point on the Skydio 2 is that it’ll autonomously track you while avoiding obstacles. It does this visually, by watching where you go, predicting your future motion, and then planning its own motion to keep you in frame. The works better than you might expect, in that it’s really very good at not losing you. Obviously, the drone prioritizes not running into stuff over tracking you, which means that it may not always be where you feel like it should be. It’s probably trying to get there, but in obstacle dense environments, it can take some creative paths.

Having said that, I found it to be very consistent with keeping me in the frame, and I only managed to lose it when changing direction while fully occluded by an obstacle, or while it was executing an avoidance maneuver that was more dynamic than normal. If you deliberately try to hide from the drone it’s not that hard to do so if there are enough obstacles around, but I didn’t find the tracking to be something that I had to worry about it most cases. When tracking does fail and you’re not using the beacon, the drone will come to a hover. It won’t try and find you, but it will reacquire you if you get back into its field of view.

The Skydio 2 had no problem tracking me running through fairly dense trees:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 had no problem chasing me around through these trees, even while I was asking it to continually change its tracking angle.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It also managed to keep up with me as I rode my bike along a tree-lined road:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is easily fast enough to keep up with me on a bike, even while avoiding tree branches.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It lost me when I asked it to follow very close behind me as I wove through some particularly branch-y trees, but it fails more or less gracefully by just sort of nope-ing out of situations when they start to get bad and coming to a hover somewhere safe.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 knows better than to put itself into situations that it can’t handle, and will bail to a safe spot if things get too complicated.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

After a few days of playing with the drone, I started to get to the point where I could set it to track me and then just forget about it while I rode my bike or whatever, as opposed to constantly turning around to make sure it was still behind me, which is what I was doing initially. It’s a level of trust that I don’t think would be possible with any other drone.

Should You Buy a Skydio 2?

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

We think the Skydio 2 is fun and relaxing to fly, with unique autonomous intelligence that makes it worth the cost.

In case I haven’t said it often enough in this review, the Skydio 2 is an incredible piece of technology. As far as I know (as a robotics journalist, mind you), this represents the state of the art in commercial drone autonomy, and quite possibly the state of the art in drone autonomy, period. And it’s available for $999, which is expensive, but less money than a Mavic Pro 2. If you’re interested in a new drone, you should absolutely consider the Skydio 2.

There are some things to keep in mind—battery life is a solid but not stellar 20 minutes. Extra batteries are expensive at $99 each (the base kit includes just one). The controller and the beacon are also expensive, at $150 each. And while I think the Skydio 2 is definitely the drone you want to fly, it may not be the drone you want to travel with, since it’s bulky compared to other options.

But there’s no denying the fact that the experience is uniquely magical. Once you’ve flown the Skydio 2, you won’t want to fly anything else. This drone makes it possible to get pictures and videos that would be otherwise impossible, and you can do it completely on your own. You can trust the drone to do what it promises, as long as you’re mindful of some basic and common sense safety guidelines. And we’ve been told that the drone is only going to get smarter and more capable over time.

If you buy a Skydio 2, it comes with the following warranty from Skydio:

“If you’re operating your Skydio 2 within our Safe Flight guidelines, and it crashes, we’ll repair or replace it for free.”

Skydio trusts their drone to go out into a chaotic and unstructured world and dodge just about anything that comes its way. And after a week with this drone, I can see how they’re able to offer this kind of guarantee. This is the kind of autonomy that robots have been promising for years, and the Skydio 2 makes it real.

Detailed technical specifications are available on Skydio’s website, and if you have any questions, post a comment—we’ve got this drone for a little while longer, and I’d be happy to try out (nearly) anything with it.

Skydio 2 Review Video Highlights
This video is about 7 minutes of 4K, 30 fps footage directly from the Skydio 2. The only editing I did was cutting clips together, no stabilization or color correcting or anything like that. The drone will record in 4K 60 fps, so it gets smoother than this, but I, er, forgot to change the setting.

[ Skydio ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436218 An AI Debated Its Own Potential for Good ...

Artificial intelligence is going to overhaul the way we live and work. But will the changes it brings be for the better? As the technology slowly develops (let’s remember that right now, we’re still very much in the narrow AI space and nowhere near an artificial general intelligence), whether it will end up doing us more harm than good is a question at the top of everyone’s mind.

What kind of response might we get if we posed this question to an AI itself?

Last week at the Cambridge Union in England, IBM did just that. Its Project Debater (an AI that narrowly lost a debate to human debating champion Harish Natarajan in February) gave the opening arguments in a debate about the promise and peril of artificial intelligence.

Critical thinking, linking different lines of thought, and anticipating counter-arguments are all valuable debating skills that humans can practice and refine. While these skills are tougher for an AI to get good at since they often require deeper contextual understanding, AI does have a major edge over humans in absorbing and analyzing information. In the February debate, Project Debater used IBM’s cloud computing infrastructure to read hundreds of millions of documents and extract relevant details to construct an argument.

This time around, Debater looked through 1,100 arguments for or against AI. The arguments were submitted to IBM by the public during the week prior to the debate, through a website set up for that purpose. Of the 1,100 submissions, the AI classified 570 as anti-AI, or of the opinion that the technology will bring more harm to humanity than good. 511 arguments were found to be pro-AI, and the rest were irrelevant to the topic at hand.

Debater grouped the arguments into five themes; the technology’s ability to take over dangerous or monotonous jobs was a pro-AI theme, and on the flip side was its potential to perpetuate the biases of its creators. “AI companies still have too little expertise on how to properly assess datasets and filter out bias,” the tall black box that houses Project Debater said. “AI will take human bias and will fixate it for generations.”
After Project Debater kicked off the debate by giving opening arguments for both sides, two teams of people took over, elaborating on its points and coming up with their own counter-arguments.

In the end, an audience poll voted in favor of the pro-AI side, but just barely; 51.2 percent of voters felt convinced that AI can help us more than it can hurt us.

The software’s natural language processing was able to identify racist, obscene, or otherwise inappropriate comments and weed them out as being irrelevant to the debate. But it also repeated the same arguments multiple times, and mixed up a statement about bias as being pro-AI rather than anti-AI.

IBM has been working on Project Debater for over six years, and though it aims to iron out small glitches like these, the system’s goal isn’t to ultimately outwit and defeat humans. On the contrary, the AI is meant to support our decision-making by taking in and processing huge amounts of information in a nuanced way, more quickly than we ever could.

IBM engineer Noam Slonim envisions Project Debater’s tech being used, for example, by a government seeking citizens’ feedback about a new policy. “This technology can help to establish an interesting and effective communication channel between the decision maker and the people that are going to be impacted by the decision,” he said.

As for the question of whether AI will do more good or harm, perhaps Sylvie Delacroix put it best. A professor of law and ethics at the University of Birmingham who argued on the pro-AI side of the debate, she pointed out that the impact AI will have depends on the way we design it, saying “AI is only as good as the data it has been fed.”

She’s right; rather than asking what sort of impact AI will have on humanity, we should start by asking what sort of impact we want it to have. The people working on AI—not AIs themselves—are ultimately responsible for how much good or harm will be done.

Image Credit: IBM Project Debater at Cambridge Union Society, photo courtesy of IBM Research Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436215 Help Rescuers Find Missing Persons With ...

There’s a definite sense that robots are destined to become a critical part of search and rescue missions and disaster relief efforts, working alongside humans to help first responders move faster and more efficiently. And we’ve seen all kinds of studies that include the claim “this robot could potentially help with disaster relief,” to varying degrees of plausibility.

But it takes a long time, and a lot of extra effort, for academic research to actually become anything useful—especially for first responders, where there isn’t a lot of financial incentive for further development.

It turns out that if you actually ask first responders what they most need for disaster relief, they’re not necessarily interested in the latest and greatest robotic platform or other futuristic technology. They’re using commercial off-the-shelf drones, often consumer-grade ones, because they’re simple and cheap and great at surveying large areas. The challenge is doing something useful with all of the imagery that these drones collect. Computer vision algorithms could help with that, as long as those algorithms are readily accessible and nearly effortless to use.

The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society and the Center for Robotic-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University have launched a contest to bridge this gap between the kinds of tools that roboticists and computer vision researchers might call “basic” and a system that’s useful to first responders in the field. It’s a simple and straightforward idea, and somewhat surprising that no one had thought of it before now. And if you can develop such a system, it’s worth some cash.

CRASAR does already have a Computer Vision Emergency Response Toolkit (created right after Hurricane Harvey), which includes a few pixel filters and some edge and corner detectors. Through this contest, you can get paid your share of a $3,000 prize pool for adding some other excessively basic tools, including:

Image enhancement through histogram equalization, which can be applied to electro-optical (visible light cameras) and thermal imagery

Color segmentation for a range

Grayscale segmentation for a range in a thermal image

If it seems like this contest is really not that hard, that’s because it isn’t. “The first thing to understand about this contest is that strictly speaking, it’s really not that hard,” says Robin Murphy, director of CRASAR. “This contest isn’t necessarily about coming up with algorithms that are brand new, or even state-of-the-art, but rather algorithms that are functional and reliable and implemented in a way that’s immediately [usable] by inexperienced users in the field.”

Murphy readily admits that some of what needs to be done is not particularly challenging at all, but that’s not the point—the point is to make these functionalities accessible to folks who have better things to do than solve these problems themselves, as Murphy explains.

“A lot of my research is driven by problems that I’ve seen in the field that you’d think somebody would have solved, but apparently not. More than half of this is available in OpenCV, but who’s going to find it, download it, learn Python, that kind of thing? We need to get these tools into an open framework. We’re happy if you take libraries that already exist (just don’t steal code)—not everything needs to be rewritten from scratch. Just use what’s already there. Some of it may seem too simple, because it IS that simple. It already exists and you just need to move some code around.”

If you want to get very slightly more complicated, there’s a second category that involves a little bit of math:

Coders must provide a system that does the following for each nadir image in a set:

Reads the geotag embedded in the .jpg
Overlays a USNG grid for a user-specified interval (e.g., every 50, 100, or 200 meters)
Gives the GPS coordinates of each pixel if a cursor is rolled over the image
Given a set of images with the GPS or USNG coordinate and a bounding box, finds all images in the set that have a pixel intersecting that location

The final category awards prizes to anyone who comes up with anything else that turns out to be useful. Or, more specifically, “entrants can submit any algorithm they believe will be of value.” Whether or not it’s actually of value will be up to a panel of judges that includes both first responders and computer vision experts. More detailed rules can be found here, along with sample datasets that you can use for testing.

The contest deadline is 16 December, so you’ve got about a month to submit an entry. Winners will be announced at the beginning of January. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436190 What Is the Uncanny Valley?

Have you ever encountered a lifelike humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated face that seem a bit off or unsettling, though you can’t quite explain why?

Take for instance AVA, one of the “digital humans” created by New Zealand tech startup Soul Machines as an on-screen avatar for Autodesk. Watching a lifelike digital being such as AVA can be both fascinating and disconcerting. AVA expresses empathy through her demeanor and movements: slightly raised brows, a tilt of the head, a nod.

By meticulously rendering every lash and line in its avatars, Soul Machines aimed to create a digital human that is virtually undistinguishable from a real one. But to many, rather than looking natural, AVA actually looks creepy. There’s something about it being almost human but not quite that can make people uneasy.

Like AVA, many other ultra-realistic avatars, androids, and animated characters appear stuck in a disturbing in-between world: They are so lifelike and yet they are not “right.” This void of strangeness is known as the uncanny valley.

Uncanny Valley: Definition and History
The uncanny valley is a concept first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, then a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The term describes Mori’s observation that as robots appear more humanlike, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease, and a tendency to be scared or freaked out.

Image: Masahiro Mori

The uncanny valley as depicted in Masahiro Mori’s original graph: As a robot’s human likeness [horizontal axis] increases, our affinity towards the robot [vertical axis] increases too, but only up to a certain point. For some lifelike robots, our response to them plunges, and they appear repulsive or creepy. That’s the uncanny valley.

In his seminal essay for Japanese journal Energy, Mori wrote:

I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.

Later in the essay, Mori describes the uncanny valley by using an example—the first prosthetic hands:

One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.

In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Mori explained how he came up with the idea for the uncanny valley:

“Since I was a child, I have never liked looking at wax figures. They looked somewhat creepy to me. At that time, electronic prosthetic hands were being developed, and they triggered in me the same kind of sensation. These experiences had made me start thinking about robots in general, which led me to write that essay. The uncanny valley was my intuition. It was one of my ideas.”

Uncanny Valley Examples
To better illustrate how the uncanny valley works, here are some examples of the phenomenon. Prepare to be freaked out.

1. Telenoid

Photo: Hiroshi Ishiguro/Osaka University/ATR

Taking the top spot in the “creepiest” rankings of IEEE Spectrum’s Robots Guide, Telenoid is a robotic communication device designed by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. Its bald head, lifeless face, and lack of limbs make it seem more alien than human.

2. Diego-san

Photo: Andrew Oh/Javier Movellan/Calit2

Engineers and roboticists at the University of California San Diego’s Machine Perception Lab developed this robot baby to help parents better communicate with their infants. At 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds), Diego-san is a big baby—bigger than an average 1-year-old child.

“Even though the facial expression is sophisticated and intuitive in this infant robot, I still perceive a false smile when I’m expecting the baby to appear happy,” says Angela Tinwell, a senior lecturer at the University of Bolton in the U.K. and author of The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation. “This, along with a lack of detail in the eyes and forehead, can make the baby appear vacant and creepy, so I would want to avoid those ‘dead eyes’ rather than interacting with Diego-san.”

​3. Geminoid HI

Photo: Osaka University/ATR/Kokoro

Another one of Ishiguro’s creations, Geminoid HI is his android replica. He even took hair from his own scalp to put onto his robot twin. Ishiguro says he created Geminoid HI to better understand what it means to be human.

4. Sophia

Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Getty Images

Designed by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia is one of the most famous humanoid robots. Like Soul Machines’ AVA, Sophia displays a range of emotional expressions and is equipped with natural language processing capabilities.

5. Anthropomorphized felines

The uncanny valley doesn’t only happen with robots that adopt a human form. The 2019 live-action versions of the animated film The Lion King and the musical Cats brought the uncanny valley to the forefront of pop culture. To some fans, the photorealistic computer animations of talking lions and singing cats that mimic human movements were just creepy.

Are you feeling that eerie sensation yet?

Uncanny Valley: Science or Pseudoscience?
Despite our continued fascination with the uncanny valley, its validity as a scientific concept is highly debated. The uncanny valley wasn’t actually proposed as a scientific concept, yet has often been criticized in that light.

Mori himself said in his IEEE Spectrum interview that he didn’t explore the concept from a rigorous scientific perspective but as more of a guideline for robot designers:

Pointing out the existence of the uncanny valley was more of a piece of advice from me to people who design robots rather than a scientific statement.

Karl MacDorman, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University who has long studied the uncanny valley, interprets the classic graph not as expressing Mori’s theory but as a heuristic for learning the concept and organizing observations.

“I believe his theory is instead expressed by his examples, which show that a mismatch in the human likeness of appearance and touch or appearance and motion can elicit a feeling of eeriness,” MacDorman says. “In my own experiments, I have consistently reproduced this effect within and across sense modalities. For example, a mismatch in the human realism of the features of a face heightens eeriness; a robot with a human voice or a human with a robotic voice is eerie.”

How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley
Unless you intend to create creepy characters or evoke a feeling of unease, you can follow certain design principles to avoid the uncanny valley. “The effect can be reduced by not creating robots or computer-animated characters that combine features on different sides of a boundary—for example, human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, or real and artificial,” MacDorman says.

To make a robot or avatar more realistic and move it beyond the valley, Tinwell says to ensure that a character’s facial expressions match its emotive tones of speech, and that its body movements are responsive and reflect its hypothetical emotional state. Special attention must also be paid to facial elements such as the forehead, eyes, and mouth, which depict the complexities of emotion and thought. “The mouth must be modeled and animated correctly so the character doesn’t appear aggressive or portray a ‘false smile’ when they should be genuinely happy,” she says.

For Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the goal is not to avoid the uncanny valley, but to avoid bad character animations or behaviors, stressing the importance of matching the appearance of a robot with its ability. “We’re trained to spot even the slightest divergence from ‘normal’ human movements or behavior,” he says. “Hence, we often fail in creating highly realistic, humanlike characters.”

But he warns that the uncanny valley appears to be more of an uncanny cliff. “We find the likability to increase and then crash once robots become humanlike,” he says. “But we have never observed them ever coming out of the valley. You fall off and that’s it.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots