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#431371 Amazon Is Quietly Building the Robots of ...

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

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#431078 This Year’s Awesome Robot Stories From ...

Each week we scour the web for great articles and fascinating advances across our core topics, from AI to biotech and the brain. But robots have a special place in our hearts. This week, we took a look back at 2017 so far and unearthed a few favorite robots for your reading and viewing pleasure.
Tarzan the Swinging Robot Could Be the Future of FarmingMariella Moon | Engadget“Tarzan will be able to swing over crops using its 3D-printed claws and parallel guy-wires stretched over fields. It will then take measurements and pictures of each plant with its built-in camera while suspended…While it may take some time to achieve that goal, the researchers plan to start testing the robot soon.”
Grasping Robots Compete to Rule Amazon’s Warehouses Tom Simonite | Wired“Robots able to help with so-called picking tasks would boost Amazon’s efficiency—and make it much less reliant on human workers. It’s why the company has invited a motley crew of mechanical arms, grippers, suction cups—and their human handlers—to Nagoya, Japan, this week to show off their manipulation skills.”
Robots Learn to Speak Body LanguageAlyssa Pagano | IEEE Spectrum“One notable feature of the OpenPose system is that it can track not only a person’s head, torso, and limbs but also individual fingers. To do that, the researchers used CMU’s Panoptic Studio, a dome lined with 500 cameras, where they captured body poses at a variety of angles and then used those images to build a data set.”
I Watched Two Robots Chat Together on Stage at a Tech EventJon Russell | TechCrunch“The robots in question are Sophia and Han, and they belong to Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong-based company that is developing and deploying artificial intelligence in humanoids. The duo took to the stage at Rise in Hong Kong with Hanson Robotics’ Chief Scientist Ben Goertzel directing the banter. The conversation, which was partially scripted, wasn’t as slick as the human-to-human panels at the show, but it was certainly a sight to behold for the packed audience.”
How This Japanese Robotics Master Is Building Better, More Human AndroidsHarry McCracken | Fast Company“On the tech side, making a robot look and behave like a person involves everything from electronics to the silicone Ishiguro’s team uses to simulate skin. ‘We have a technology to precisely control pneumatic actuators,’ he says, noting, as an example of what they need to re-create, that ‘the human shoulder has four degrees of freedom.’”
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#431013 Robots won’t steal our jobs if we ...

The technologies driving artificial intelligence are expanding exponentially, leading many technology experts and futurists to predict machines will soon be doing many of the jobs that humans do today. Some even predict humans could lose control over their future. Continue reading

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#430652 The Jobs AI Will Take Over First

11th July 2017: The robotic revolution is set to cause the biggest transformation in the world’s workforce since the industrial revolution. In fact, research suggests that over 30% of jobs in Britain are under threat from breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

With pioneering advances in technology many jobs that weren’t considered ripe for automation suddenly are. RS Components have used PWC Data to reveal how many jobs per sector are at risk of being taken by robots by 2030, a mere 13 years away. Did you think you were exempt from the robot revolution?

The top three sectors who are most exposed to the threats of robots are Transport and Storage, Manufacturing and Wholesale and Retail with 56%, 46% and 44% risk of automation respectively. The PWC report states that the differentiating factor between losing jobs to automation probability is education; those with a GCSE-level education or lower face a 46% risk, whilst those with undergraduate degrees or higher face a 12% risk. If a job is repetitive, physical and requires minimum effort to train for, this will have a higher likelihood to become automated by machines.

The manufacturing industry has the 3rd highest likelihood potential at 46.6%, shortly behind Transportation and Storage (56.4%) and Water, Sewage and Waste Management (62.6%). Although the manufacturing sector has the 3rd highest likelihood, it has the second largest number of jobs at risk of being taken by robots; an astonishing 1.22 million jobs are at risk in the near future. Repetitive manual labour and routine tasks can be taught to fixed machines and mimicked easily, saving employers both time and money.

The three sectors least at risk are Education, Health and Social and Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing with 9%, 17% and 19% risk of automation respectively. These operations are non-repetitive and consist of characteristics that cannot be taught and are harder to replicate with AI and robotics.

These are not the only fields where the introduction of AI will have an impact on employment prospects; Administrative and Support Services, Accommodation and Food Services, Finance and Insurance, Construction, Real Estate, Public Administration and Defence, and Arts and Entertainment are not out of the woods either.

The future is not all doom and gloom. Automation is set to boost productivity to enable workers to focus on higher value, more rewarding jobs; leaving repetitive and uncomplicated ones to the robots. An increase in sectors that are less easy to automate is also expected due to lower running costs. Wealth and spending will also be boosted by the initiation of AI seizing work. Also, there are just some things AI cannot learn so these jobs will be safe.

In some sectors half of the jobs could be taken by a fully automated system. Is your job next?

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#426429 Fraunhofer IPA demonstrates the ...

In line with current requirements in this age of digital manufacturing, the scientists from Stuttgart are presenting an intelligent interplay of different exhibits at the AUTOMATICA in Munich from 21st till 24th June 2016. Covering the fields of man at the workplace, products and automation, as well as IT infrastructure and networking, the exhibits demonstrate the added value offered by a production plant geared towards Industrie 4.0.

At the Fraunhofer IPA booth, the four cornerstones of Industrie 4.0 can be experienced in various ways within the overall context of a digital production: a wide range of cyberphysical systems, a participatory platform, the Internet of things and services, and also a portal with intuitive man-machine interfaces for interacting with the manufacturing system. With the aid of exhibits interacting intelligently with the cloud, visitors can comprehend the solutions offered by the research institute for various segments of the value chain. These range from singularization, though (partially-)automated assembly processes and workpiece transportation, right up to networking components with the IT infrastructure. The services are not only relevant to users and decision-makers in manufacturing enterprises but also to their suppliers: for planning, operating and optimizing production plants, as well as developing innovative industrial components, machines and systems.
Source: Fraunhofer IPA, photo: Rainer Bez

Focus on the federative platform »Virtual Fort Knox«
Ever since 2012, Fraunhofer IPA has been working together with medium-sized enterprises on an open platform for manufacturing companies called »Virtual Fort Knox«. Under the motto »manufacturing-IT-as-a-service«, various applications (services) can make production data on the platform usable by any end-device. Joachim Seidelmann, head of DigiTools at Fraunhofer IPA, formulated the declared goal as follows. »On the one hand, we want to implement Industrie 4.0 concepts that enable users to increase their production efficiency. On the other hand, together with our industrial customers, we want to answer the question: which digital solutions can be integrated meaningfully into my product or production plant in order to develop new business models?«
At the AUTOMATICA, »Virtual Fort Knox« plays a key role: various demonstrators are linked via the platform. As with a real production plant, a wide range of near real-time status and process data is collected in the system for direct processing. The huge advantage, in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises, is that users can access the information from applications via an output medium of their choice. This does away with the need to procure and maintain a suitable IT environment. Furthermore, the user is billed for the use of the software and hardware on a »pay-as-you-go« basis, thus avoiding fixed costs.
Multiple benefits from the cloud for robotics
The basic technical requirement for an Industrie 4.0 environment is that all equipment with integrated sensors and controllers has to be networked as a cyber-physical system (CPS). A typical example of a CPS is robot systems, such as the bin-picking IPA demonstrator on show at the booth. The manufacturer-independent software bp3™ enables the robot to locate objects rapidly and reliably and plan trajectories for numerous workpieces. A further exhibit presents the advantages of a software package that can be used in conjunction with nearly all types and makes of robot to perform numerous assembly tasks. For the first time, complex tasks that were previously carried out manually, such as assembling switching cabinets, can now be taught intuitively by non-experts and thus be automated cost-effectively.

Through their connection to the cloud architecture, the potential of both software solutions is extended: thanks to the central data pool containing information on workpieces or program modules for direct implementation – so-called skills – robot systems can be put into operation and maintained more efficiently than in the past, components replaced easier and all processes traced and controlled centrally. This not only makes robot systems more adaptable but also significantly speeds up retrofitting to accommodate new product variants. Via a range of services, the cloud also offers new software functions. Similarly, locally-optimized processes can be played back to the cloud, thus enabling all networked robot systems to benefit from once-only program changes.
Source: Fraunhofer IPA, photo: Rainer BezFor flexible transport solutions, the IPA experts have developed »Cloud Navigation«. The advantage of this information is demonstrated by example at the booth with the aid of two mobile, self-navigating systems. Since both automated guided vehicles (AGVs), or multiple AGVs in an industrial context, supply their locally-acquired data to a central point, the entire fleet benefits from more accurate localization and more efficient pathplanning. The AGVs could then act as »lean clients«, i.e. because computer-intensive navigation algorithms could be outsourced to the cloud server, they would require less hardware but would still retain a high degree of navigation intelligence. External sensors, e.g. from the manufacturing environment, could be integrated, as well as navigation functions provided in the form of services.

Controlling and optimizing process
A further key element of Industrie 4.0 is the continuous monitoring of all process steps. This is achieved with »Smart System Optimization« developed at Fraunhofer IPA, which can be implemented without the need for expert IT knowledge. The mobile system collects and automatically analyzes near real-time component and process data using intelligent cameras, generally installed singly at each production station. The system not only detects process aberrations and their cause but also identifies possible losses or bottlenecks. In areas where »Smart System Optimization« is utilized, companies can increase their efficiency by more than ten percent. Moreover, with the intelligent workpiece carrier »smartWT«, single workpieces can also contribute towards process monitoring. Integrated sensors constantly gather logistics and process data relevant to quality and transmit the information wirelessly to the cloud. The user has access to current data at all times and can intervene as required, thus improving production quality and throughput.
As far as the IT infrastructure is concerned, Fraunhofer IPA also has a solution tailored to the demands of an adaptable production plant: with the software »Sense&Act«, companies can devise individual rules to network production equipment. Modifications to the IT, as well as extensions and new interfaces, can be realized at little effort. The software uses sensor data to monitor production, for example to detect system errors. Under certain circumstances, it initiates specific action, such as notifying the user or implementing a measure on the robotic system. Sensors and actuators are swiftly regulated via an intuitive user interface, or shared throughout the company and evaluated.

Relieving the burden on humans and analyzing data usefully
Even in Industrie 4.0 environments, the close involvement of man and his abilities in production brings significant advantages. How this can be achieved, even in the case of burdensome tasks and in view of the demographic change, is demonstrated by the first work exoskeleton that is capable of aiding the worker with overhead tasks. The assembly workplace is linked to the IT infrastructure and adapts automatically to the worker’s individual body measurements as well as the assembly process required. This reduces set-up times and relieves the strain off the worker. Additionally, a workplace analysis developed at Fraunhofer IPA quantifies how effectively the solution reduces the employee workload and optimizes production processes.
All the exhibits in the Industrie 4.0 environment have one thing in common in that they continuously collect information in the sense of »Smart Data«, which can then be used to optimize production. Visitors to the booth can see for themselves how the IPA experts visualize and analyze the sensor and status data acquired from an exhibit to advantage. The information gained from intelligent data analyses also represent approaches for new business models based on usage data, such as service intervals tailored to individual requirements or adaptions to product portfolios to suit customer needs.
Source: Fraunhofer IPA, photo: Rainer Bez
Basic research on Industrie 4.0 with TRUMPF
That theory alone is not enough is demonstrated by a cooperation initiative with TRUMPF: in the summer of 2015, the Ditzingen-based company – one of the world’s leading manufacturers of machine tools for flexible sheet metal processing and industrial lasers – entered into a five-year strategic cooperation with Fraunhofer IPA. The aim of the cooperation is to anchor knowledge from current research on Industrie 4.0 in sheet metal processing. In the so-called »flexible sheet metal processing lab«, workers from TRUMPF and Fraunhofer IPA are working together on innovative solutions for production technologies of tomorrow. In initial starter projects, the areas of »intralogistics«, »service-oriented machines« and »autonomous production« are being handled. The aim is to further develop the contents of the cooperation as it progresses with new project topics being regularly added.
Ulrich Schneider, project manager at Fraunhofer IPA, will be reporting on the joint cooperation scheme during AUTOMATICA on 24th June at 11 a.m. Together with Dr. Martin Landherr, he will be presenting the project under the title »Think in business models, work in cooperations – cooperation with TRUMPF as a practical example of the Application Center Industrie 4.0«. He will also talk about the Application Center Industrie 4.0, which is located at the Fraunhofer Institute Center. This is a test environment for industrial research that unites cyber-physical systems with a real manufacturing environment.
Source: Fraunhofer IPA, photo: Rainer Bez

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