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#436507 The Weird, the Wacky, the Just Plain ...

As you know if you’ve ever been to, heard of, or read about the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, there’s no shortage of tech in any form: gadgets, gizmos, and concepts abound. You probably couldn’t see them all in a month even if you spent all day every day trying.

Given the sheer scale of the show, the number of exhibitors, and the inherent subjectivity of bestowing superlatives, it’s hard to pick out the coolest tech from CES. But I’m going to do it anyway; in no particular order, here are some of the products and concepts that I personally found most intriguing at this year’s event.

e-Novia’s Haptic Gloves
Italian startup e-Novia’s Weart glove uses a ‘sensing core’ to record tactile sensations and an ‘actuation core’ to reproduce those sensations onto the wearer’s skin. Haptic gloves will bring touch to VR and AR experiences, making them that much more life-like. The tech could also be applied to digitization of materials and in gaming and entertainment.

e-Novia’s modular haptic glove
I expected a full glove, but in fact there were two rings that attached to my fingers. Weart co-founder Giovanni Spagnoletti explained that they’re taking a modular approach, so as to better tailor the technology to different experiences. He then walked me through a virtual reality experience that was a sort of simulated science experiment: I had to lift a glass beaker, place it on a stove, pour in an ingredient, open a safe to access some dry ice, add that, and so on. As I went through the steps, I felt the beaker heat up and cool off at the expected times, and felt the liquid moving inside, as well as the pressure of my fingertips against the numbered buttons on the safe.

A virtual (but tactile) science experiment
There was a slight delay between my taking an action and feeling the corresponding tactile sensation, but on the whole, the haptic glove definitely made the experience more realistic—and more fun. Slightly less fun but definitely more significant, Spagnoletti told me Weart is working with a medical group to bring tactile sensations to VR training for surgeons.

Sarcos Robotics’ Exoskeleton
That tire may as well be a feather
Sarcos Robotics unveiled its Guardian XO full-body exoskeleton, which it says can safely lift up to 200 pounds across an extended work session. What’s cool about this particular exoskeleton is that it’s not just a prototype; the company announced a partnership with Delta airlines, which will be trialing the technology for aircraft maintenance, engine repair, and luggage handling. In a demo, I watched a petite female volunteer strap into the exoskeleton and easily lift a 50-pound weight with one hand, and a Sarcos employee lift and attach a heavy component of a propeller; she explained that the strength-augmenting function of the exoskeleton can easily be switched on or off—and the wearer’s hands released—to facilitate multi-step tasks.

Hyundai’s Flying Taxi
Where to?
Hyundai and Uber partnered to unveil an air taxi concept. With a 49-foot wingspan, 4 lift rotors, and 4 tilt rotors, the aircraft would be manned by a pilot and could carry 4 passengers at speeds up to 180 miles per hour. The companies say you’ll be able to ride across your city in one of these by 2030—we’ll see if the regulatory environment, public opinion, and other factors outside of technological capability let that happen.

Mercedes’ Avatar Concept Car
Welcome to the future
As evident from its name, Mercedes’ sweet new Vision AVTR concept car was inspired by the movie Avatar; director James Cameron helped design it. The all-electric car has no steering wheel, transparent doors, seats made of vegan leather, and 33 reptilian-scale-like flaps on the back; its design is meant to connect the driver with both the car and the surrounding environment in a natural, seamless way.

Next-generation scrolling
Offered the chance to ‘drive’ the car, I jumped on it. Placing my hand on the center console started the engine, and within seconds it had synced to my heartbeat, which reverberated through the car. The whole dashboard, from driver door to passenger door, is one big LED display. It showed a virtual landscape I could select by holding up my hand: as I moved my hand from left to right, different images were projected onto my open palm. Closing my hand on an image selected it, and suddenly it looked like I was in the middle of a lush green mountain range. Applying slight forward pressure on the center console made the car advance in the virtual landscape; it was essentially like playing a really cool video game.

Mercedes is aiming to have a carbon-neutral production fleet by 2039, and to reduce the amount of energy it uses during production by 40 percent by 2030. It’s unclear when—or whether—the man-machine-nature connecting features of the Vision AVTR will start showing up in production, but I for one will be on the lookout.

Waverly Labs’ In-Ear Translator
Waverly Labs unveiled its Ambassador translator earlier this year and has it on display at the show. It’s worn on the ear and uses a far-field microphone array with speech recognition to translate real-time conversations in 20 different languages. Besides in-ear audio, translations can also appear as text on an app or be broadcast live in a conference environment.

It’s kind of like a giant talking earring
I stopped by the booth and tested out the translator with Waverly senior software engineer Georgiy Konovalov. We each hooked on an earpiece, and first, he spoke to me in Russian. After a delay of a couple seconds, I heard his words in—slightly robotic, but fully comprehensible—English. Then we switched: I spoke to him in Spanish, my words popped up on his phone screen in Cyrillic, and he translated them back to English for me out loud.

On the whole, the demo was pretty cool. If you’ve ever been lost in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak, imagine how handy a gadget like this would come in. Let’s just hope that once they’re more widespread, these products don’t end up discouraging people from learning languages.

Not to be outdone, Google also announced updates to its Translate product, which is being deployed at information desks in JFK airport’s international terminal, in sports stadiums in Qatar, and by some large hotel chains.

Stratuscent’s Digital Nose
AI is making steady progress towards achieving human-like vision and hearing—but there’s been less work done on mimicking our sense of smell (maybe because it’s less useful in everyday applications). Stratuscent’s digital nose, which it says is based on NASA patents, uses chemical receptors and AI to identify both simple chemicals and complex scents. The company is aiming to create the world’s first comprehensive database of everyday scents, which it says it will use to make “intelligent decisions” for customers. What kind of decisions remains to be seen—and smelled.

Banner Image Credit: The Mercedes Vision AVTR concept car. Photo by Vanessa Bates Ramirez Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436123 A Path Towards Reasonable Autonomous ...

Editor’s Note: The debate on autonomous weapons systems has been escalating over the past several years as the underlying technologies evolve to the point where their deployment in a military context seems inevitable. IEEE Spectrum has published a variety of perspectives on this issue. In summary, while there is a compelling argument to be made that autonomous weapons are inherently unethical and should be banned, there is also a compelling argument to be made that autonomous weapons could potentially make conflicts less harmful, especially to non-combatants. Despite an increasing amount of international attention (including from the United Nations), progress towards consensus, much less regulatory action, has been slow. The following workshop paper on autonomous weapons systems policy is remarkable because it was authored by a group of experts with very different (and in some cases divergent) views on the issue. Even so, they were able to reach consensus on a roadmap that all agreed was worth considering. It’s collaborations like this that could be the best way to establish a reasonable path forward on such a contentious issue, and with the permission of the authors, we’re excited to be able to share this paper (originally posted on Georgia Tech’s Mobile Robot Lab website) with you in its entirety.

Autonomous Weapon Systems: A Roadmapping Exercise
Over the past several years, there has been growing awareness and discussion surrounding the possibility of future lethal autonomous weapon systems that could fundamentally alter humanity’s relationship with violence in war. Lethal autonomous weapons present a host of legal, ethical, moral, and strategic challenges. At the same time, artificial intelligence (AI) technology could be used in ways that improve compliance with the laws of war and reduce non-combatant harm. Since 2014, states have come together annually at the United Nations to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems1. Additionally, a growing number of individuals and non-governmental organizations have become active in discussions surrounding autonomous weapons, contributing to a rapidly expanding intellectual field working to better understand these issues. While a wide range of regulatory options have been proposed for dealing with the challenge of lethal autonomous weapons, ranging from a preemptive, legally binding international treaty to reinforcing compliance with existing laws of war, there is as yet no international consensus on a way forward.

The lack of an international policy consensus, whether codified in a formal document or otherwise, poses real risks. States could fall victim to a security dilemma in which they deploy untested or unsafe weapons that pose risks to civilians or international stability. Widespread proliferation could enable illicit uses by terrorists, criminals, or rogue states. Alternatively, a lack of guidance on which uses of autonomy are acceptable could stifle valuable research that could reduce the risk of non-combatant harm.

International debate thus far has predominantly centered around whether or not states should adopt a preemptive, legally-binding treaty that would ban lethal autonomous weapons before they can be built. Some of the authors of this document have called for such a treaty and would heartily support it, if states were to adopt it. Other authors of this document have argued an overly expansive treaty would foreclose the possibility of using AI to mitigate civilian harm. Options for international action are not binary, however, and there are a range of policy options that states should consider between adopting a comprehensive treaty or doing nothing.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the possibility of a middle road. If a roadmap could garner sufficient stakeholder support to have significant beneficial impact, then what elements could it contain? The exercise whose results are presented below was not to identify recommendations that the authors each prefer individually (the authors hold a broad spectrum of views), but instead to identify those components of a roadmap that the authors are all willing to entertain2. We, the authors, invite policymakers to consider these components as they weigh possible actions to address concerns surrounding autonomous weapons3.

Summary of Issues Surrounding Autonomous Weapons

There are a variety of issues that autonomous weapons raise, which might lend themselves to different approaches. A non-exhaustive list of issues includes:

The potential for beneficial uses of AI and autonomy that could improve precision and reliability in the use of force and reduce non-combatant harm.
Uncertainty about the path of future technology and the likelihood of autonomous weapons being used in compliance with the laws of war, or international humanitarian law (IHL), in different settings and on various timelines.
A desire for some degree of human involvement in the use of force. This has been expressed repeatedly in UN discussions on lethal autonomous weapon systems in different ways.
Particular risks surrounding lethal autonomous weapons specifically targeting personnel as opposed to vehicles or materiel.
Risks regarding international stability.
Risk of proliferation to terrorists, criminals, or rogue states.
Risk that autonomous systems that have been verified to be acceptable can be made unacceptable through software changes.
The potential for autonomous weapons to be used as scalable weapons enabling a small number of individuals to inflict very large-scale casualties at low cost, either intentionally or accidentally.

Summary of Components

A time-limited moratorium on the development, deployment, transfer, and use of anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon systems4. Such a moratorium could include exceptions for certain classes of weapons.
Define guiding principles for human involvement in the use of force.
Develop protocols and/or technological means to mitigate the risk of unintentional escalation due to autonomous systems.
Develop strategies for preventing proliferation to illicit uses, such as by criminals, terrorists, or rogue states.
Conduct research to improve technologies and human-machine systems to reduce non-combatant harm and ensure IHL compliance in the use of future weapons.

Component 1:

States should consider adopting a five-year, renewable moratorium on the development, deployment, transfer, and use of anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon systems. Anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon systems are defined as weapons systems that, once activated, can select and engage dismounted human targets without further intervention by a human operator, possibly excluding systems such as:

Fixed-point defensive systems with human supervisory control to defend human-occupied bases or installations
Limited, proportional, automated counter-fire systems that return fire in order to provide immediate, local defense of humans
Time-limited pursuit deterrent munitions or systems
Autonomous weapon systems with size above a specified explosive weight limit that select as targets hand-held weapons, such as rifles, machine guns, anti-tank weapons, or man-portable air defense systems, provided there is adequate protection for non-combatants and ensuring IHL compliance5

The moratorium would not apply to:

Anti-vehicle or anti-materiel weapons
Non-lethal anti-personnel weapons
Research on ways of improving autonomous weapon technology to reduce non-combatant harm in future anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon systems
Weapons that find, track, and engage specific individuals whom a human has decided should be engaged within a limited predetermined period of time and geographic region

Motivation:

This moratorium would pause development and deployment of anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapons systems to allow states to better understand the systemic risks of their use and to perform research that improves their safety, understandability, and effectiveness. Particular objectives could be to:

ensure that, prior to deployment, anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapons can be used in ways that are equal to or outperform humans in their compliance with IHL (other conditions may also apply prior to deployment being acceptable);
lay the groundwork for a potentially legally binding diplomatic instrument; and
decrease the geopolitical pressure on countries to deploy anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapons before they are reliable and well-understood.

Compliance Verification:

As part of a moratorium, states could consider various approaches to compliance verification. Potential approaches include:

Developing an industry cooperation regime analogous to that mandated under the Chemical Weapons Convention, whereby manufacturers must know their customers and report suspicious purchases of significant quantities of items such as fixed-wing drones, quadcopters, and other weaponizable robots.
Encouraging states to declare inventories of autonomous weapons for the purposes of transparency and confidence-building.
Facilitating scientific exchanges and military-to-military contacts to increase trust, transparency, and mutual understanding on topics such as compliance verification and safe operation of autonomous systems.
Designing control systems to require operator identity authentication and unalterable records of operation; enabling post-hoc compliance checks in case of plausible evidence of non-compliant autonomous weapon attacks.
Relating the quantity of weapons to corresponding capacities for human-in-the-loop operation of those weapons.
Designing weapons with air-gapped firing authorization circuits that are connected to the remote human operator but not to the on-board automated control system.
More generally, avoiding weapon designs that enable conversion from compliant to non-compliant categories or missions solely by software updates.
Designing weapons with formal proofs of relevant properties—e.g., the property that the weapon is unable to initiate an attack without human authorization. Proofs can, in principle, be provided using cryptographic techniques that allow the proofs to be checked by a third party without revealing any details of the underlying software.
Facilitate access to (non-classified) AI resources (software, data, methods for ensuring safe operation) to all states that remain in compliance and participate in transparency activities.

Component 2:

Define and universalize guiding principles for human involvement in the use of force.

Humans, not machines, are legal and moral agents in military operations.
It is a human responsibility to ensure that any attack, including one involving autonomous weapons, complies with the laws of war.
Humans responsible for initiating an attack must have sufficient understanding of the weapons, the targets, the environment and the context for use to determine whether that particular attack is lawful.
The attack must be bounded in space, time, target class, and means of attack in order for the determination about the lawfulness of that attack to be meaningful.
Militaries must invest in training, education, doctrine, policies, system design, and human-machine interfaces to ensure that humans remain responsible for attacks.

Component 3:

Develop protocols and/or technological means to mitigate the risk of unintentional escalation due to autonomous systems.

Specific potential measures include:

Developing safe rules for autonomous system behavior when in proximity to adversarial forces to avoid unintentional escalation or signaling. Examples include:

No-first-fire policy, so that autonomous weapons do not initiate hostilities without explicit human authorization.
A human must always be responsible for providing the mission for an autonomous system.
Taking steps to clearly distinguish exercises, patrols, reconnaissance, or other peacetime military operations from attacks in order to limit the possibility of reactions from adversary autonomous systems, such as autonomous air or coastal defenses.

Developing resilient communications links to ensure recallability of autonomous systems. Additionally, militaries should refrain from jamming others’ ability to recall their autonomous systems in order to afford the possibility of human correction in the event of unauthorized behavior.

Component 4:

Develop strategies for preventing proliferation to illicit uses, such as by criminals, terrorists, or rogue states:

Targeted multilateral controls to prevent large-scale sale and transfer of weaponizable robots and related military-specific components for illicit use.
Employ measures to render weaponizable robots less harmful (e.g., geofencing; hard-wired kill switch; onboard control systems largely implemented in unalterable, non-reprogrammable hardware such as application-specific integrated circuits).

Component 5:

Conduct research to improve technologies and human-machine systems to reduce non-combatant harm and ensure IHL-compliance in the use of future weapons, including:

Strategies to promote human moral engagement in decisions about the use of force
Risk assessment for autonomous weapon systems, including the potential for large-scale effects, geopolitical destabilization, accidental escalation, increased instability due to uncertainty about the relative military balance of power, and lowering thresholds to initiating conflict and for violence within conflict
Methodologies for ensuring the reliability and security of autonomous weapon systems
New techniques for verification, validation, explainability, characterization of failure conditions, and behavioral specifications.

About the Authors (in alphabetical order)

Ronald Arkin directs the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Georgia Tech.

Leslie Kaelbling is co-director of the Learning and Intelligent Systems Group at MIT.

Stuart Russell is a professor of computer science and engineering at UC Berkeley.

Dorsa Sadigh is an assistant professor of computer science and of electrical engineering at Stanford.

Paul Scharre directs the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

Bart Selman is a professor of computer science at Cornell.

Toby Walsh is a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney.

The authors would like to thank Max Tegmark for organizing the three-day meeting from which this document was produced.

1 Autonomous Weapons System (AWS): A weapon system that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator. BACK TO TEXT↑

2 There is no implication that some authors would not personally support stronger recommendations. BACK TO TEXT↑

3 For ease of use, this working paper will frequently shorten “autonomous weapon system” to “autonomous weapon.” The terms should be treated as synonymous, with the understanding that “weapon” refers to the entire system: sensor, decision-making element, and munition. BACK TO TEXT↑

4 Anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon system: A weapon system that, once activated, can select and engage dismounted human targets with lethal force and without further intervention by a human operator. BACK TO TEXT↑

5 The authors are not unanimous about this item because of concerns about ease of repurposing for mass-casualty missions targeting unarmed humans. The purpose of the lower limit on explosive payload weight would be to minimize the risk of such repurposing. There is precedent for using explosive weight limit as a mechanism of delineating between anti-personnel and anti-materiel weapons, such as the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Time of War, of Explosive Projectiles Under 400 Grammes Weight. BACK TO TEXT↑ Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436100 Labrador Systems Developing Affordable ...

Developing robots for the home is still a challenge, especially if you want those robots to interact with people and help them do practical, useful things. However, the potential markets for home robots are huge, and one of the most compelling markets is for home robots that can assist humans who need them. Today, Labrador Systems, a startup based in California, is announcing a pre-seed funding round of $2 million (led by SOSV’s hardware accelerator HAX with participation from Amazon’s Alexa Fund and iRobot Ventures, among others) with the goal of expanding development and conducting pilot studies of “a new [assistive robot] platform for supporting home health.”

Labrador was founded two years ago by Mike Dooley and Nikolai Romanov. Both Mike and Nikolai have backgrounds in consumer robotics at Evolution Robotics and iRobot, but as an ’80s gamer, Mike’s bio (or at least the parts of his bio on LinkedIn) caught my attention: From 1995 to 1997, Mike worked at Brøderbund Software, helping to manage play testing for games like Myst and Riven and the Where in the World is Carmen San Diego series. He then spent three years at Lego as the product manager for MindStorms. After doing some marginally less interesting things, Mike was the VP of product development at Evolution Robotics from 2006 to 2012, where he led the team that developed the Mint floor sweeping robot. Evolution was acquired by iRobot in 2012, and Mike ended up as the VP of product development over there until 2017, when he co-founded Labrador.

I was pretty much sold at Where in the World is Carmen San Diego (the original version of which I played from a 5.25” floppy on my dad’s Apple IIe)*, but as you can see from all that other stuff, Mike knows what he’s doing in robotics as well.

And according to Labrador’s press release, what they’re doing is this:

Labrador Systems is an early stage technology company developing a new generation of assistive robots to help people live more independently. The company’s core focus is creating affordable solutions that address practical and physical needs at a fraction of the cost of commercial robots. … Labrador’s technology platform offers an affordable solution to improve the quality of care while promoting independence and successful aging.

Labrador’s personal robot, the company’s first offering, will enter pilot studies in 2020.

That’s about as light on detail as a press release gets, but there’s a bit more on Labrador’s website, including:

Our core focus is creating affordable solutions that address practical and physical needs. (we are not a social robot company)
By affordable, we mean products and technologies that will be available at less than 1/10th the cost of commercial robots.
We achieve those low costs by fusing the latest technologies coming out of augmented reality with robotics to move things in the real world.

The only hardware we’ve actually seen from Labrador at this point is a demo that they put together for Amazon’s re:MARS conference, which took place a few months ago, showing a “demonstration project” called Smart Walker:

This isn’t the home assistance robot that Labrador got its funding for, but rather a demonstration of some of their technology. So of course, the question is, what’s Labrador working on, then? It’s still a secret, but Mike Dooley was able to give us a few more details.

IEEE Spectrum: Your website shows a smart walker concept—how is that related to the assistive robot that you’re working on?

Mike Dooley: The smart walker was a request from a major senior living organization to have our robot (which is really good at navigation) guide residents from place to place within their communities. To test the idea with residents, it turned out to be much quicker to take the navigation system from the robot and put it on an existing rollator walker. So when you see the clips of the technology in the smart walker video on our website, that’s actually the robot’s navigation system localizing in real time and path planning in an environment.

“Assistive robot” can cover a huge range of designs and capabilities—can you give us any more detail about your robot, and what it’ll be able to do?

One of the core features of our robot is to help people move things where they have difficulty moving themselves, particularly in the home setting. That may sound trivial, but to someone who has impaired mobility, it can be a major daily challenge and negatively impact their life and health in a number of ways. Some examples we repeatedly hear are people not staying hydrated or taking their medication on time simply because there is a distance between where they are and the items they need. Once we have those base capabilities, i.e. the ability to navigate around a home and move things within it, then the robot becomes a platform for a wider variety of applications.

What made you decide to develop assistive robots, and why are robots a good solution for seniors who want to live independently?

Supporting independent living has been seen as a massive opportunity in robotics for some time, but also as something off in the future. The turning point for me was watching my mother enter that stage in her life and seeing her transition to using a cane, then a walker, and eventually to a wheelchair. That made the problems very real for me. It also made things much clearer about how we could start addressing specific needs with the tools that are becoming available now.

In terms of why robots can be a good solution, the basic answer is the level of need is so overwhelming that even helping with “basic” tasks can make an appreciable difference in the quality of someone’s daily life. It’s also very much about giving individuals a degree of control back over their environment. That applies to seniors as well as others whose world starts getting more complex to manage as their abilities become more impaired.

What are the particular challenges of developing assistive robots, and how are you addressing them? Why do you think there aren’t more robotics startups in this space?

The setting (operating in homes and personal spaces) and the core purpose of the product (aiding a wide variety of individuals) bring a lot of complexity to any capability you want to build into an assistive robot. Our approach is to put as much structure as we can into the system to make it functional, affordable, understandable and reliable.

I think one of the reasons you don’t see more startups in the space is that a lot of roboticists want to skip ahead and do the fancy stuff, such as taking on human-level capabilities around things like manipulation. Those are very interesting research topics, but we think those are also very far away from being practical solutions you can productize for people to use in their homes.

How do you think assistive robots and human caregivers should work together?

The ideal scenario is allowing caregivers to focus more of their time on the high-touch, personal side of care. The robot can offload the more basic support tasks as well as extend the impact of the caregiver for the long hours of the day they can’t be with someone at their home. We see that applying to both paid care providers as well as the 40 million unpaid family members and friends that provide assistance.

The robot is really there as a tool, both for individuals in need and the people that help them. What’s promising in the research discussions we’ve had so far, is that even when a caregiver is present, giving control back to the individual for simple things can mean a lot in the relationship between them and the caregiver.

What should we look forward to from Labrador in 2020?

Our big goal in 2020 is to start placing the next version of the robot with individuals with different types of needs to let them experience it naturally in their own homes and provide feedback on what they like, what don’t like and how we can make it better. We are currently reaching out to companies in the healthcare and home health fields to participate in those studies and test specific applications related to their services. We plan to share more detail about those studies and the robot itself as we get further into 2020.

If you’re an organization (or individual) who wants to possibly try out Labrador’s prototype, the company encourages you to connect with them through their website. And as we learn more about what Labrador is up to, we’ll have updates for you, presumably in 2020.

[ Labrador Systems ]

* I just lost an hour of my life after finding out that you can play Where in the World is Carmen San Diego in your browser for free. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435742 This ‘Useless’ Social Robot ...

The recent high profile failures of some home social robots (and the companies behind them) have made it even more challenging than it was before to develop robots in that space. And it was challenging enough to begin with—making a robot that can autonomous interact with random humans in their homes over a long period of time for a price that people can afford is extraordinarily difficult. However, the massive amount of initial interest in robots like Jibo, Kuri, Vector, and Buddy prove that people do want these things, or at least think they do, and while that’s the case, there’s incentive for other companies to give social home robots a try.

One of those companies is Zoetic, founded in 2107 by Mita Yun and Jitu Das, both ex-Googlers. Their robot, Kiki, is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot: It’s cute, white, roundish, has big eyes, promises that it will be your “robot sidekick,” and is not cheap: It’s on Kicksterter for $800. Kiki is among what appears to be a sort of tentative second wave of social home robots, where designers have (presumably) had a chance to take everything that they learned from the social home robot pioneers and use it to make things better this time around.

Kiki’s Kickstarter video is, again, more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot crowdfunding campaign:

We won’t get into all of the details on Kiki in this article (the Kickstarter page has tons of information), but a few distinguishing features:

Each Kiki will develop its own personality over time through its daily interactions with its owner, other people, and other Kikis.
Interacting with Kiki is more abstract than with most robots—it can understand some specific words and phrases, and will occasionally use a few specific words or two, but otherwise it’s mostly listening to your tone of voice and responding with sounds rather than speech.
Kiki doesn’t move on its own, but it can operate for up to two hours away from its charging dock.
Depending on how your treat Kiki, it can get depressed or neurotic. It also needs to be fed, which you can do by drawing different kinds of food in the app.
Everything Kiki does runs on-board the robot. It has Wi-Fi connectivity for updates, but doesn’t rely on the cloud for anything in real-time, meaning that your data stays on the robot and that the robot will continue to function even if its remote service shuts down.

It’s hard to say whether features like these are unique enough to help Kiki be successful where other social home robots haven’t been, so we spoke with Zoetic co-founder Mita Yun and asked her why she believes that Kiki is going to be the social home robot that makes it.

IEEE Spectrum: What’s your background?

Mita Yun: I was an only child growing up, and so I always wanted something like Doraemon or Totoro. Something that when you come home it’s there to greet you, not just because it’s programmed to do that but because it’s actually actively happy to see you, and only you. I was so interested in this that I went to study robotics at CMU and then after I graduated I joined Google and worked there for five years. I tended to go for the more risky and more fun projects, but they always got cancelled—the first project I joined was called Android at Home, and then I joined Google Glass, and then I joined a team called Robots for Kids. That project was building educational robots, and then I just realized that when we’re adding technology to something, to a product, we’re actually taking the life away somehow, and the kids were more connected with stuffed animals compared to the educational robots we were building. That project was also cancelled, and in 2017, I left with a coworker of mine (Jitu Das) to bring this dream into reality. And now we’re building Kiki.

“Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless”
—Mita Yun, Zoetic

You started working on Kiki in 2017, when things were already getting challenging for Jibo—why did you decide to start developing a social home robot at that point?

I thought Jibo was great. It had a special magical way of moving, and it was such a new idea that you could have this robot with embodiment and it can actually be your assistant. The problem with Jibo, in my opinion, was that it took too long to fulfill the orders. It took them three to four years to actually manufacture, because it was a very complex piece of hardware, and then during that period of time Alexa and Google Home came out, and they started selling these voice systems for $30 and then you have Jibo for $800. Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless.

Can you elaborate on “completely useless?”

I feel like people are initially connected with robots because they remind them of a character. And it’s the closest we can get to a character other than an organic character like an animal. So we’re connected to a character like when we have a robot in a mall that’s roaming around, even if it looks really ugly, like if it doesn’t have eyes, people still take selfies with it. Why? Because they think it’s a character. And humans are just hardwired to love characters and love stories. With Kiki, we just wanted to build a character that’s alive, we don’t want to have a character do anything super useful.

I understand why other robotics companies are adding Alexa integration to their robots, and I think that’s great. But the dream I had, and the understanding I have about robotics technology, is that for a consumer robot especially, it is very very difficult for the robot to justify its price through usefulness. And then there’s also research showing that the more useless something is, the easier it is to have an emotional connection, so that’s why we want to keep Kiki very useless.

What kind of character are you creating with Kiki?

The whole design principle around Kiki is we want to make it a very vulnerable character. In terms of its status at home, it’s not going to be higher or equal status as the owner, but slightly lower status than the human, and it’s vulnerable and needs you to take care of it in order to grow up into a good personality robot.

We don’t let Kiki speak full English sentences, because whenever it does that, people are going to think it’s at least as intelligent as a baby, which is impossible for robots at this point. And we also don’t let it move around, because when you have it move around, people are going to think “I’m going to call Kiki’s name, and then Kiki is will come to me.” But that is actually very difficult to build. And then also we don’t have any voice integration so it doesn’t tell you about the stock market price and so on.

Photo: Zoetic

Kiki is designed to be “vulnerable,” and it needs you to take care of it so it can “grow up into a good personality robot,” according to its creators.

That sounds similar to what Mayfield did with Kuri, emphasizing an emotional connection rather than specific functionality.

It is very similar, but one of the key differences from Kuri, I think, is that Kuri started with a Kobuki base, and then it’s wrapped into a cute shell, and they added sounds. So Kuri started with utility in mind—navigation is an important part of Kuri, so they started with that challenge. For Kiki, we started with the eyes. The entire thing started with the character itself.

How will you be able to convince your customers to spend $800 on a robot that you’ve described as “useless” in some ways?

Because it’s useless, it’s actually easier to convince people, because it provides you with an emotional connection. I think Kiki is not a utility-driven product, so the adoption cycle is different. For a functional product, it’s very easy to pick up, because you can justify it by saying “I’m going to pay this much and then my life can become this much more efficient.” But it’s also very easy to be replaced and forgotten. For an emotional-driven product, it’s slower to pick up, but once people actually pick it up, they’re going to be hooked—they get be connected with it, and they’re willing to invest more into taking care of the robot so it will grow up to be smarter.

Maintaining value over time has been another challenge for social home robots. How will you make sure that people don’t get bored with Kiki after a few weeks?

Of course Kiki has limits in what it can do. We can combine the eyes, the facial expression, the motors, and lights and sounds, but is it going to be constantly entertaining? So we think of this as, imagine if a human is actually puppeteering Kiki—can Kiki stay interesting if a human is puppeteering it and interacting with the owner? So I think what makes a robot interesting is not just in the physical expressions, but the part in between that and the robot conveying its intentions and emotions.

For example, if you come into the room and then Kiki decides it will turn the other direction, ignore you, and then you feel like, huh, why did the robot do that to me? Did I do something wrong? And then maybe you will come up to it and you will try to figure out why it did that. So, even though Kiki can only express in four different dimensions, it can still make things very interesting, and then when its strategies change, it makes it feel like a new experience.

There’s also an explore and exploit process going on. Kiki wants to make you smile, and it will try different things. It could try to chase its tail, and if you smile, Kiki learns that this works and will exploit it. But maybe after doing it three times, you no longer find it funny, because you’re bored of it, and then Kiki will observe your reactions and be motivated to explore a new strategy.

Photo: Zoetic

Kiki’s creators are hoping that, with an emotionally engaging robot, it will be easier for people to get attached to it and willing to spend time taking care of it.

A particular risk with crowdfunding a robot like this is setting expectations unreasonably high. The emphasis on personality and emotional engagement with Kiki seems like it may be very difficult for the robot to live up to in practice.

I think we invested more than most robotics companies into really building out Kiki’s personality, because that is the single most important thing to us. For Jibo a lot of the focus was in the assistant, and for Kuri, it’s more in the movement. For Kiki, it’s very much in the personality.

I feel like when most people talk about personality, they’re mainly talking about expression. With Kiki, it’s not just in the expression itself, not just in the voice or the eyes or the output layer, it’s in the layer in between—when Kiki receives input, how will it make decisions about what to do? We actually don’t think the personality of Kiki is categorizable, which is why I feel like Kiki has a deeper implementation of how personalities should work. And you’re right, Kiki doesn’t really understand why you’re feeling a certain way, it just reads your facial expressions. It’s maybe not your best friend, but maybe closer to your little guinea pig robot.

Photo: Zoetic

The team behind Kiki paid particular attention to its eyes, and designed the robot to always face the person that it is interacting with.

Is that where you’d put Kiki on the scale of human to pet?

Kiki is definitely not human, we want to keep it very far away from human. And it’s also not a dog or cat. When we were designing Kiki, we took inspiration from mammals because humans are deeply connected to mammals since we’re mammals ourselves. And specifically we’re connected to predator animals. With prey animals, their eyes are usually on the sides of their heads, because they need to see different angles. A predator animal needs to hunt, they need to focus. Cats and dogs are predator animals. So with Kiki, that’s why we made sure the eyes are on one side of the face and the head can actuate independently from the body and the body can turn so it’s always facing the person that it’s paying attention to.

I feel like Kiki is probably does more than a plant. It does more than a fish, because a fish doesn’t look you in the eyes. It’s not as smart as a cat or a dog, so I would just put it in this guinea pig kind of category.

What have you found so far when running user studies with Kiki?

When we were first designing Kiki we went through a whole series of prototypes. One of the earlier prototypes of Kiki looked like a CRT, like a very old monitor, and when we were testing that with people they didn’t even want to touch it. Kiki’s design inspiration actually came from an airplane, with a very angular, futuristic look, but based on user feedback we made it more round and more friendly to the touch. The lights were another feature request from the users, which adds another layer of expressivity to Kiki, and they wanted to see multiple Kikis working together with different personalities. Users also wanted different looks for Kiki, to make it look like a deer or a unicorn, for example, and we actually did take that into consideration because it doesn’t look like any particular mammal. In the future, you’ll be able to have different ears to make it look like completely different animals.

There has been a lot of user feedback that we didn’t implement—I believe we should observe the users reactions and feedback but not listen to their advice. The users shouldn’t be our product designers, because if you test Kiki with 10 users, eight of them will tell you they want Alexa in it. But we’re never going to add Alexa integration to Kiki because that’s not what it’s meant to do.

While it’s far too early to tell whether Kiki will be a long-term success, the Kickstarter campaign is currently over 95 percent funded with 8 days to go, and 34 robots are still available for a May 2020 delivery.

[ Kickstarter ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435640 Video Friday: This Wearable Robotic Tail ...

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

DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
CLAWAR 2019 – August 26-28, 2019 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Lakshmi Nair from Georgia Tech describes some fascinating research towards robots that can create their own tools, as presented at ICRA this year:

Using a novel capability to reason about shape, function, and attachment of unrelated parts, researchers have for the first time successfully trained an intelligent agent to create basic tools by combining objects.

The breakthrough comes from Georgia Tech’s Robot Autonomy and Interactive Learning (RAIL) research lab and is a significant step toward enabling intelligent agents to devise more advanced tools that could prove useful in hazardous – and potentially life-threatening – environments.

[ Lakshmi Nair ]

Victor Barasuol, from the Dynamic Legged Systems Lab at IIT, wrote in to share some new research on their HyQ quadruped that enables sensorless shin collision detection. This helps the robot navigate unstructured environments, and also mitigates all those painful shin strikes, because ouch.

This will be presented later this month at the International Conference on Climbing and Walking Robots (CLAWAR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

[ IIT ]

Thanks Victor!

You used to have a tail, you know—as an embryo, about a month in to your development. All mammals used to have tails, and now we just have useless tailbones, which don’t help us with balancing even a little bit. BRING BACK THE TAIL!

The tail, created by Junichi Nabeshima, Kouta Minamizawa, and MHD Yamen Saraiji from Keio University’s Graduate School of Media Design, was presented at SIGGRAPH 2019 Emerging Technologies.

[ Paper ] via [ Gizmodo ]

The noises in this video are fantastic.

[ ESA ]

Apparently the industrial revolution wasn’t a thorough enough beatdown of human knitting, because the robots are at it again.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

Skydio’s drones just keep getting more and more impressive. Now if only they’d make one that I can afford…

[ Skydio ]

The only thing more fun than watching robots is watching people react to robots.

[ SEER ]

There aren’t any robots in this video, but it’s robotics-related research, and very soothing to watch.

[ Stanford ]

#autonomousicecreamtricycle

In case it wasn’t clear, which it wasn’t, this is a Roboy project. And if you didn’t understand that first video, you definitely won’t understand this second one:

Whatever that t-shirt is at the end (Roboy in sunglasses puking rainbows…?) I need one.

[ Roboy ]

By adding electronics and computation technology to a simple cane that has been around since ancient times, a team of researchers at Columbia Engineering have transformed it into a 21st century robotic device that can provide light-touch assistance in walking to the aged and others with impaired mobility.

The light-touch robotic cane, called CANINE, acts as a cane-like mobile assistant. The device improves the individual’s proprioception, or self-awareness in space, during walking, which in turn improves stability and balance.

[ ROAR Lab ]

During the second field experiment for DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program, which took place at Fort Benning, Georgia, teams of autonomous air and ground robots tested tactics on a mission to isolate an urban objective. Similar to the way a firefighting crew establishes a boundary around a burning building, they first identified locations of interest and then created a perimeter around the focal point.

[ DARPA ]

I think there’s a bit of new footage here of Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 quadruped walking around without sensors on unstructured terrain.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

If you’re as tired of passenger drone hype as I am, there’s absolutely no need to watch this video of NEC’s latest hover test.

[ AP ]

As researchers teach robots to perform more and more complex tasks, the need for realistic simulation environments is growing. Existing techniques for closing the reality gap by approximating real-world physics often require extensive real world data and/or thousands of simulation samples. This paper presents TuneNet, a new machine learning-based method to directly tune the parameters of one model to match another using an iterative residual tuning technique. TuneNet estimates the parameter difference between two models using a single observation from the target and minimal simulation, allowing rapid, accurate and sample-efficient parameter estimation.

The system can be trained via supervised learning over an auto-generated simulated dataset. We show that TuneNet can perform system identification, even when the true parameter values lie well outside the distribution seen during training, and demonstrate that simulators tuned with TuneNet outperform existing techniques for predicting rigid body motion. Finally, we show that our method can estimate real-world parameter values, allowing a robot to perform sim-to-real task transfer on a dynamic manipulation task unseen during training. We are also making a baseline implementation of our code available online.

[ Paper ]

Here’s an update on what GITAI has been up to with their telepresence astronaut-replacement robot.

[ GITAI ]

Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama of a location on Mars called “Teal Ridge” on June 18, 2019. This location is part of a larger region the rover has been exploring called the “clay-bearing unit” on the side of Mount Sharp, which is inside Gale Crater. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.

[ MSL ]

Some updates (in English) on ROS from ROSCon France. The first is a keynote from Brian Gerkey:

And this second video is from Omri Ben-Bassat, about how to keep your Anki Vector alive using ROS:

All of the ROSCon FR talks are available on Vimeo.

[ ROSCon FR ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots