Tag Archives: week

#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

#436466 How Two Robots Learned to Grill and ...

The list of things robots can do seems to be growing by the week. They can play sports, help us explore outer space and the deep sea, take over some of our boring everyday tasks, and even assemble Ikea furniture.

Now they can add one more accomplishment to the list: grilling and serving a hot dog.

It seems like a pretty straightforward task, and as far as grilling goes, hot dogs are about as easy as it gets (along with, maybe, burgers? Hot dogs require more rotation, but it’s easier to tell when they’re done since they’re lighter in color).

Let’s paint a picture: you’re manning the grill at your family’s annual Fourth of July celebration. You’ve got a 10-pack of plump, juicy beef franks and a hungry crowd of relatives whose food-to-alcohol ratio is getting pretty skewed—they need some solid calories, pronto. What are the steps you need to take to get those franks from package to plate?

Each one needs to be placed on the grill, rotated every couple minutes for even cooking, removed from the grill when you deem it’s done, then—if you’re the kind of guy or gal who goes the extra mile—placed in a bun and dressed with ketchup, mustard, pickles, and the like before being handed over to salivating, too-loud Uncle Hector or sweet, bored Cousin Margaret.

While carrying out your grillmaster duties, you know better than to drop the hot dogs on the ground, leave them cooking on one side for too long, squeeze them to the point of breaking or bursting, and any other hot-dog-ruining amateur moves.

But for a robot, that’s a lot to figure out, especially if they have no prior knowledge of grilling hot dogs (which, well, most robots don’t).

As described in a paper published in this week’s Science Robotics, a team from Boston University programmed two robotic arms to use reinforcement learning—a branch of machine learning in which software gathers information about its environment then learns from it by replaying its experiences and incorporating rewards—to cook and serve hot dogs.

The team used a set of formulas to specify and combine tasks (“pick up hot dog and place on the grill”), meet safety requirements (“always avoid collisions”), and incorporate general prior knowledge (“you cannot pick up another hot dog if you are already holding one”).

Baxter and Jaco—as the two robots were dubbed—were trained through computer simulations. The paper’s authors emphasized their use of what they call a “formal specification language” for training the software, with the aim of generating easily-interpretable task descriptions. In reinforcement learning, they explain, being able to understand how a reward function influences an AI’s learning process is a key component in understanding the system’s behavior—but most systems lack this quality, and are thus likely to be lumped into the ‘black box’ of AI.

The robots’ decisions throughout the hot dog prep process—when to turn a hot dog, when to take it off the grill, and so on—are, the authors write, “easily interpretable from the beginning because the language is very similar to plain English.”

Besides being a step towards more explainable AI systems, Baxter and Jaco are another example of fast-food robots—following in the footsteps of their burger and pizza counterparts—that may take over some repetitive manual tasks currently performed by human workers. As robots’ capabilities improve through incremental progress like this, they’ll be able to take on additional tasks.

In a not-so-distant future, then, you just may find yourself throwing back drinks with Uncle Hector and Cousin Margaret while your robotic replacement mans the grill, churning out hot dogs that are perfectly cooked every time.

Image Credit: Image by Muhammad Ribkhan from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436426 Video Friday: This Robot Refuses to Fall ...

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!):

Robotic Arena – January 25, 2020 – Wrocław, Poland
DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, Wash., USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

In case you somehow missed the massive Skydio 2 review we posted earlier this week, the first batches of the drone are now shipping. Each drone gets a lot of attention before it goes out the door, and here’s a behind-the-scenes clip of the process.

[ Skydio ]

Sphero RVR is one of the 15 robots on our robot gift guide this year. Here’s a new video Sphero just released showing some of the things you can do with the robot.

[ RVR ]

NimbRo-OP2 has some impressive recovery skills from the obligatory research-motivated robot abuse.

[ NimbRo ]

Teams seeking to qualify for the Virtual Urban Circuit of the Subterranean Challenge can access practice worlds to test their approaches prior to submitting solutions for the competition. This video previews three of the practice environments.

[ DARPA SubT ]

Stretchable skin-like robots that can be rolled up and put in your pocket have been developed by a University of Bristol team using a new way of embedding artificial muscles and electrical adhesion into soft materials.

[ Bristol ]

Happy Holidays from ABB!

Helping New York celebrate the festive season, twelve ABB robots are interacting with visitors to Bloomingdale’s iconic holiday celebration at their 59th Street flagship store. ABB’s robots are the main attraction in three of Bloomingdale’s twelve-holiday window displays at Lexington and Third Avenue, as ABB demonstrates the potential for its robotics and automation technology to revolutionize visual merchandising and make the retail experience more dynamic and whimsical.

[ ABB ]

We introduce pelican eel–inspired dual-morphing architectures that embody quasi-sequential behaviors of origami unfolding and skin stretching in response to fluid pressure. In the proposed system, fluid paths were enclosed and guided by a set of entirely stretchable origami units that imitate the morphing principle of the pelican eel’s stretchable and foldable frames. This geometric and elastomeric design of fluid networks, in which fluid pressure acts in the direction that the whole body deploys first, resulted in a quasi-sequential dual-morphing response. To verify the effectiveness of our design rule, we built an artificial creature mimicking a pelican eel and reproduced biomimetic dual-morphing behavior.

And here’s a real pelican eel:

[ Science Robotics ]

Delft Dynamics’ updated anti-drone system involves a tether, mid-air net gun, and even a parachute.

[ Delft Dynamics ]

Teleoperation is a great way of helping robots with complex tasks, especially if you can do it through motion capture. But what if you’re teleoperating a non-anthropomorphic robot? Columbia’s ROAM Lab is working on it.

[ Paper ] via [ ROAM Lab ]

I don’t know how I missed this video last year because it’s got a steely robot hand squeezing a cute lil’ chick.

[ MotionLib ] via [ RobotStart ]

In this video we present results of a trajectory generation method for autonomous overtaking of unexpected obstacles in a dynamic urban environment. In these settings, blind spots can arise from perception limitations. For example when overtaking unexpected objects on the vehicle’s ego lane on a two-way street. In this case, a human driver would first make sure that the opposite lane is free and that there is enough room to successfully execute the maneuver, and then it would cut into the opposite lane in order to execute the maneuver successfully. We consider the practical problem of autonomous overtaking when the coverage of the perception system is impaired due to occlusion.

[ Paper ]

New weirdness from Toio!

[ Toio ]

Palo Alto City Library won a technology innovation award! Watch to see how Senior Librarian Dan Lou is using Misty to enhance their technology programs to inspire and educate customers.

[ Misty Robotics ]

We consider the problem of reorienting a rigid object with arbitrary known shape on a table using a two-finger pinch gripper. Reorienting problem is challenging because of its non-smoothness and high dimensionality. In this work, we focus on solving reorienting using pivoting, in which we allow the grasped object to rotate between fingers. Pivoting decouples the gripper rotation from the object motion, making it possible to reorient an object under strict robot workspace constraints.

[ CMU ]

How can a mobile robot be a good pedestrian without bumping into you on the sidewalk? It must be hard for a robot to navigate in crowded environments since the flow of traffic follows implied social rules. But researchers from MIT developed an algorithm that teaches mobile robots to maneuver in crowds of people, respecting their natural behaviour.

[ Roboy Research Reviews ]

What happens when humans and robots make art together? In this awe-inspiring talk, artist Sougwen Chung shows how she “taught” her artistic style to a machine — and shares the results of their collaboration after making an unexpected discovery: robots make mistakes, too. “Part of the beauty of human and machine systems is their inherent, shared fallibility,” she says.

[ TED ]

Last month at the Cooper Union in New York City, IEEE TechEthics hosted a public panel session on the facts and misperceptions of autonomous vehicles, part of the IEEE TechEthics Conversations Series. The speakers were: Jason Borenstein from Georgia Tech; Missy Cummings from Duke University; Jack Pokrzywa from SAE; and Heather M. Roff from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The panel was moderated by Mark A. Vasquez, program manager for IEEE TechEthics.

[ IEEE TechEthics ]

Two videos this week from Lex Fridman’s AI podcast: Noam Chomsky, and Whitney Cummings.

[ AI Podcast ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from Jeff Clune at the University of Wyoming, on “Improving Robot and Deep Reinforcement Learning via Quality Diversity and Open-Ended Algorithms.”

Quality Diversity (QD) algorithms are those that seek to produce a diverse set of high-performing solutions to problems. I will describe them and a number of their positive attributes. I will then summarize our Nature paper on how they, when combined with Bayesian Optimization, produce a learning algorithm that enables robots, after being damaged, to adapt in 1-2 minutes in order to continue performing their mission, yielding state-of-the-art robot damage recovery. I will next describe our QD-based Go-Explore algorithm, which dramatically improves the ability of deep reinforcement learning algorithms to solve previously unsolvable problems wherein reward signals are sparse, meaning that intelligent exploration is required. Go-Explore solves Montezuma’s Revenge, considered by many to be a major AI research challenge. Finally, I will motivate research into open-ended algorithms, which seek to innovate endlessly, and introduce our POET algorithm, which generates its own training challenges while learning to solve them, automatically creating a curricula for robots to learn an expanding set of diverse skills. POET creates and solves challenges that are unsolvable with traditional deep reinforcement learning techniques.

[ CMU RI ] 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

#436261 AI and the future of work: The prospects ...

AI experts gathered at MIT last week, with the aim of predicting the role artificial intelligence will play in the future of work. Will it be the enemy of the human worker? Will it prove to be a savior? Or will it be just another innovation—like electricity or the internet?

As IEEE Spectrum previously reported, this conference (“AI and the Future of Work Congress”), held at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, offered sometimes pessimistic outlooks on the job- and industry-destroying path that AI and automation seems to be taking: Self-driving technology will put truck drivers out of work; smart law clerk algorithms will put paralegals out of work; robots will (continue to) put factory and warehouse workers out of work.

Andrew McAfee, co-director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, said even just in the past couple years, he’s noticed a shift in the public’s perception of AI. “I remember from previous versions of this conference, it felt like we had to make the case that we’re living in a period of accelerating change and that AI’s going to have a big impact,” he said. “Nobody had to make that case today.”

Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, noted that following the path of least resistance is not a viable way forward. “If we do nothing, we’re in trouble,” she said. “The future will not take care of itself. We have to do something about it.”

Panelists and speakers spoke about championing productive uses of AI in the workplace, which ultimately benefit both employees and customers.

As one example, Zeynep Ton, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, highlighted retailer Sam’s Club’s recent rollout of a program called Sam’s Garage. Previously customers shopping for tires for their car spent somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes with a Sam’s Club associate paging through manuals and looking up specs on websites.

But with an AI algorithm, they were able to cut that spec hunting time down to 2.2 minutes. “Now instead of wasting their time trying to figure out the different tires, they can field the different options and talk about which one would work best [for the customer],” she said. “This is a great example of solving a real problem, including [enhancing] the experience of the associate as well as the customer.”

“We think of it as an AI-first world that’s coming,” said Scott Prevost, VP of engineering at Adobe. Prevost said AI agents in Adobe’s software will behave something like a creative assistant or intern who will take care of more mundane tasks for you.

“We need a mindset change. That it is not just about minimizing costs or maximizing tax benefits, but really worrying about what kind of society we’re creating and what kind of environment we’re creating if we keep on just automating and [eliminating] good jobs.”
—Daron Acemoglu, MIT Institute Professor of Economics

Prevost cited an internal survey of Adobe customers that found 74 percent of respondents’ time was spent doing repetitive work—the kind that might be automated by an AI script or smart agent.

“It used to be you’d have the resources to work on three ideas [for a creative pitch or presentation],” Prevost said. “But if the AI can do a lot of the production work, then you can have 10 or 100. Which means you can actually explore some of the further out ideas. It’s also lowering the bar for everyday people to create really compelling output.”

In addition to changing the nature of work, noted a number of speakers at the event, AI is also directly transforming the workforce.

Jacob Hsu, CEO of the recruitment company Catalyte spoke about using AI as a job placement tool. The company seeks to fill myriad positions including auto mechanics, baristas, and office workers—with its sights on candidates including young people and mid-career job changers. To find them, it advertises on Craigslist, social media, and traditional media.

The prospects who sign up with Catalyte take a battery of tests. The company’s AI algorithms then match each prospect’s skills with the field best suited for their talents.

“We want to be like the Harry Potter Sorting Hat,” Hsu said.

Guillermo Miranda, IBM’s global head of corporate social responsibility, said IBM has increasingly been hiring based not on credentials but on skills. For instance, he said, as much as 50 per cent of the company’s new hires in some divisions do not have a traditional four-year college degree. “As a company, we need to be much more clear about hiring by skills,” he said. “It takes discipline. It takes conviction. It takes a little bit of enforcing with H.R. by the business leaders. But if you hire by skills, it works.”

Ardine Williams, Amazon’s VP of workforce development, said the e-commerce giant has been experimenting with developing skills of the employees at its warehouses (a.k.a. fulfillment centers) with an eye toward putting them in a position to get higher-paying work with other companies.

She described an agreement Amazon had made in its Dallas fulfillment center with aircraft maker Sikorsky, which had been experiencing a shortage of skilled workers for its nearby factory. So Amazon offered to its employees a free certification training to seek higher-paying work at Sikorsky.

“I do that because now I have an attraction mechanism—like a G.I. Bill,” Williams said. The program is also only available for employees who have worked at least a year with Amazon. So their program offers medium-term job retention, while ultimately moving workers up the wage ladder.

Radha Basu, CEO of AI data company iMerit, said her firm aggressively hires from the pool of women and under-resourced minority communities in the U.S. and India. The company specializes in turning unstructured data (e.g. video or audio feeds) into tagged and annotated data for machine learning, natural language processing, or computer vision applications.

“There is a motivation with these young people to learn these things,” she said. “It comes with no baggage.”

Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of The Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative, said the future of work ultimately means, in bottom-line terms, the future of human capital. “We have an R&D tax credit,” he said. “We’ve had it for decades. It provides credit for companies that make new investment in research and development. But we have nothing on the human capital side that’s analogous.”

So a company that’s making a big investment in worker training does it on their own dime, without any of the tax benefits that they might accrue if they, say, spent it on new equipment or new technology. Fitzpayne said a simple tweak to the R&D tax credit could make a big difference by incentivizing new investment programs in worker training. Which still means Amazon’s pre-existing worker training programs—for a company that already famously pays no taxes—would not count.

“We need a different way of developing new technologies,” said Daron Acemoglu, MIT Institute Professor of Economics. He pointed to the clean energy sector as an example. First a consensus around the problem needs to emerge. Then a broadly agreed-upon set of goals and measurements needs to be developed (e.g., that AI and automation would, for instance, create at least X new jobs for every Y jobs that it eliminates).

Then it just needs to be implemented.

“We need to build a consensus that, along the path we’re following at the moment, there are going to be increasing problems for labor,” Acemoglu said. “We need a mindset change. That it is not just about minimizing costs or maximizing tax benefits, but really worrying about what kind of society we’re creating and what kind of environment we’re creating if we keep on just automating and [eliminating] good jobs.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots