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In the fictional worlds of film and TV, artificial intelligence has been depicted as so advanced that it is indistinguishable from humans. But what if we’re actually getting closer to a world where AI is capable of thinking and feeling?
Tech company UneeQ is embarking on that journey with its “digital humans.” These avatars act as visual interfaces for customer service chatbots, virtual assistants, and other applications. UneeQ’s digital humans appear lifelike not only in terms of language and tone of voice, but also because of facial movements: raised eyebrows, a tilt of the head, a smile, even a wink. They transform a transaction into an interaction: creepy yet astonishing, human, but not quite.
What lies beneath UneeQ’s digital humans? Their 3D faces are modeled on actual human features. Speech recognition enables the avatar to understand what a person is saying, and natural language processing is used to craft a response. Before the avatar utters a word, specific emotions and facial expressions are encoded within the response.
UneeQ may be part of a larger trend towards humanizing computing. ObEN’s digital avatars serve as virtual identities for celebrities, influencers, gaming characters, and other entities in the media and entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Soul Machines is taking a more biological approach, with a “digital brain” that simulates aspects of the human brain to modulate the emotions “felt” and “expressed” by its “digital people.” Amelia is employing a similar methodology in building its “digital employees.” It emulates parts of the brain involved with memory to respond to queries and, with each interaction, learns to deliver more engaging and personalized experiences.
Shiwali Mohan, an AI systems scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, is skeptical of these digital beings. “They’re humanlike in their looks and the way they sound, but that in itself is not being human,” she says. “Being human is also how you think, how you approach problems, and how you break them down; and that takes a lot of algorithmic design. Designing for human-level intelligence is a different endeavor than designing graphics that behave like humans. If you think about the problems we’re trying to design these avatars for, we might not need something that looks like a human—it may not even be the right solution path.”
And even if these avatars appear near-human, they still evoke an uncanny valley feeling. “If something looks like a human, we have high expectations of them, but they might behave differently in ways that humans just instinctively know how other humans react. These differences give rise to the uncanny valley feeling,” says Mohan.
Yet the demand is there, with Amelia seeing high adoption of its digital employees across the financial, health care, and retail sectors. “We find that banks and insurance companies, which are so risk-averse, are leading the adoption of such disruptive technologies because they understand that the risk of non-adoption is much greater than the risk of early adoption,” says Chetan Dube, Amelia’s CEO. “Unless they innovate their business models and make them much more efficient digitally, they might be left behind.” Dube adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated adoption of digital employees in health care and retail as well.
Amelia, Soul Machines, and UneeQ are taking their digital beings a step further, enabling organizations to create avatars themselves using low-code or no-code platforms: Digital Employee Builder for Amelia, Creator for UneeQ, and Digital DNA Studio for Soul Machines. Unreal Engine, a game engine developed by Epic Games, is doing the same with MetaHuman Creator, a tool that allows anyone to create photorealistic digital humans. “The biggest motivation for Digital Employee Builder is to democratize AI,” Dube says.
Mohan is cautious about this approach. “AI has problems with bias creeping in from data sets and into the way it speaks. The AI community is still trying to figure out how to measure and counter that bias,” she says. “[Companies] have to have an AI expert on board that can recommend the right things to build for.”
Despite being wary of the technology, Mohan supports the purpose behind these virtual beings and is optimistic about where they’re headed. “We do need these tools that support humans in different kinds of things. I think the vision is the pro, and I’m behind that vision,” she says. “As we develop more sophisticated AI technology, we would then have to implement novel ways of interacting with that technology. Hopefully, all of that is designed to support humans in their goals.” Continue reading
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!):
RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference]
ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – Xi'an, China
DARPA SubT Finals – September 21-23, 2021 – Louisville, KY, USA
WeRobot 2021 – September 23-25, 2021 – Coral Gables, FL, USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.
Man-Machine Synergy Effectors, Inc. is a Japanese company working on an absolutely massive “human machine synergistic effect device,” which is a huge robot controlled by a nearby human using a haptic rig.
From the look of things, the next generation will be able to move around. Whoa.
[ MMSE ]
This method of loading and unloading AMRs without having them ever stop moving is so obvious that there must be some equally obvious reason why I've never seen it done in practice.
The LoadRunner is able to transport and sort parcels weighing up to 30 kilograms. This makes it the perfect luggage carrier for airports. These AI-driven go-carts can also work in concert as larger collectives to carry large, heavy and bulky objects. Every LoadRunner can also haul up to four passive trailers. Powered by four electric motors, the LoadRunner sharply brakes at just the right moment right in front of its destination and the payload slides from the robot onto the delivery platform.
[ Fraunhofer ] via [ Gizmodo ]
Ayato Kanada at Kyushu University wrote in to share this clever “dislocatable joint,” a way of combining continuum and rigid robots.
[ Paper ]
The DodgeDrone challenge revisits the popular dodgeball game in the context of autonomous drones. Specifically, participants will have to code navigation policies to fly drones between waypoints while avoiding dynamic obstacles. Drones are fast but fragile systems: as soon as something hits them, they will crash! Since objects will move towards the drone with different speeds and acceleration, smart algorithms are required to avoid them!
This could totally happen in real life, and we need to be prepared for it!
[ DodgeDrone Challenge ]
In addition to winning the Best Student Design Competition CREATIVITY Award at HRI 2021, this paper would also have won the Best Paper Title award, if that award existed.
[ Paper ]
Robots are traditionally bound by a fixed morphology during their operational lifetime, which is limited to adapting only their control strategies. Here we present the first quadrupedal robot that can morphologically adapt to different environmental conditions in outdoor, unstructured environments.
We show that the robot exploits its training to effectively transition between different morphological configurations, exhibiting substantial performance improvements over a non-adaptive approach. The demonstrated benefits of real-world morphological adaptation demonstrate the potential for a new embodied way of incorporating adaptation into future robotic designs.
[ Nature ]
A drone video shot in a Minneapolis bowling alley was hailed as an instant classic. One Hollywood veteran said it “adds to the language and vocabulary of cinema.” One IEEE Spectrum editor said “hey that's pretty cool.”
[ Bryant Lake Bowl ]
It doesn't take a robot to convince me to buy candy, but I think if I buy candy from Relay it's a business expense, right?
[ RIS ]
DARPA is making progress on its AI dogfighting program, with physical flight tests expected this year.
[ DARPA ACE ]
Unitree Robotics has realized that the Empire needs to be overthrown!
[ Unitree ]
Windhover Labs, an emerging leader in open and reliable flight software and hardware, announces the upcoming availability of its first hardware product, a low cost modular flight computer for commercial drones and small satellites.
[ Windhover ]
As robots and autonomous systems are poised to become part of our everyday lives, the University of Michigan and Ford are opening a one-of-a-kind facility where they’ll develop robots and roboticists that help make lives better, keep people safer and build a more equitable society.
[ U Michigan ]
The adaptive robot Rizon combined with a new hybrid electrostatic and gecko-inspired gripping pad developed by Stanford BDML can manipulate bulky, non-smooth items in the most effort-saving way, which broadens the applications in retail and household environments.
[ Flexiv ]
I don't know why anyone would want things to get MORE icy, but if you do for some reason, you can make it happen with a Husky.
Is winter over yet?
[ Clearpath ]
Skip ahead to about 1:20 to see a pair of Gita robots following a Spot following a human like a chain of lil’ robot duckings.
[ PFF ]
Here are a couple of retro robotics videos, one showing teleoperated humanoids from 2000, and the other showing a robotic guide dog from 1976 (!)
[ Tachi Lab ]
If you missed Chad Jenkins' talk “That Ain’t Right: AI Mistakes and Black Lives” last time, here's another opportunity to watch from Robotics Today, and it includes a top notch panel discussion at the end.
[ Robotics Today ]
Since its founding in 1979, the Robotics Institute (RI) at Carnegie Mellon University has been leading the world in robotics research and education. In the mid 1990s, RI created NREC as the applied R&D center within the Institute with a specific mission to apply robotics technology in an impactful way on real-world applications. In this talk, I will go over numerous R&D programs that I have led at NREC in the past 25 years.
[ CMU ] Continue reading
Over the last half decade or so, the commercialization of autonomous robots that can operate outside of structured environments has dramatically increased. But this relatively new transition of robotic technologies from research projects to commercial products comes with its share of challenges, many of which relate to the rapidly increasing visibility that these robots have in society.
Whether it's because of their appearance of agency, or because of their history in popular culture, robots frequently inspire people’s imagination. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when it leads to innovative new use cases. And sometimes this is a bad thing, like when it leads to use cases that could be classified as irresponsible or unethical. Can the people selling robots do anything about the latter? And even if they can, should they?
Roboticists understand that robots, fundamentally, are tools. We build them, we program them, and even the autonomous ones are just following the instructions that we’ve coded into them. However, that same appearance of agency that makes robots so compelling means that it may not be clear to people without much experience with or exposure to real robots that a robot itself isn’t inherently good or bad—rather, as a tool, a robot is a reflection of its designers and users.
This can put robotics companies into a difficult position. When they sell a robot to someone, that person can, hypothetically, use the robot in any way they want. Of course, this is the case with every tool, but it’s the autonomous aspect that makes robots unique. I would argue that autonomy brings with it an implied association between a robot and its maker, or in this case, the company that develops and sells it. I’m not saying that this association is necessarily a reasonable one, but I think that it exists, even if that robot has been sold to someone else who has assumed full control over everything it does.
“All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used to harm or intimidate people or animals, as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon”
—Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics
Robotics companies are certainly aware of this, because many of them are very careful about who they sell their robots to, and very explicit about what they want their robots to be doing. But once a robot is out in the wild, as it were, how far should that responsibility extend? And realistically, how far can it extend? Should robotics companies be held accountable for what their robots do in the world, or should we accept that once a robot is sold to someone else, responsibility is transferred as well? And what can be done if a robot is being used in an irresponsible or unethical way that could have a negative impact on the robotics community?
For perspective on this, we contacted folks from three different robotics companies, each of which has experience selling distinctive mobile robots to commercial end users. We asked them the same five questions about the responsibility that robotics companies have regarding the robots that they sell, and here’s what they had to say:
Do you have any restrictions on what people can do with your robots? If so, what are they, and if not, why not?
Péter Fankhauser, CEO, ANYbotics:
We closely work together with our customers to make sure that our solution provides the right approach for their problem. Thereby, the target use case is clear from the beginning and we do not work with customers interested in using our robot ANYmal outside the intended target applications. Specifically, we strictly exclude any military or weaponized uses and since the foundation of ANYbotics it is close to our heart to make human work easier, safer, and more enjoyable.
Robert Playter, CEO, Boston Dynamics:
Yes, we have restrictions on what people can do with our robots, which are outlined in our Terms and Conditions of Sale. All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used to harm or intimidate people or animals, as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon. Spot, just like any product, must be used in compliance with the law.
Ryan Gariepy, CTO, Clearpath Robotics:
We do have strict restrictions and KYC processes which are based primarily on Canadian export control regulations. They depend on the type of equipment sold as well as where it is going. More generally, we also will not sell or support a robot if we know that it will create an uncontrolled safety hazard or if we have reason to believe that the buyer is unqualified to use the product. And, as always, we do not support using our products for the development of fully autonomous weapons systems.
More broadly, if you sell someone a robot, why should they be restricted in what they can do with it?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: We see the robot less as a simple object but more as an artificial workforce. This implies to us that the usage is closely coupled with the transfer of the robot and both the customer and the provider agree what the robot is expected to do. This approach is supported by what we hear from our customers with an increasing interest to pay for the robots as a service or per use.
Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We’re offering a product for sale. We’re going to do the best we can to stop bad actors from using our technology for harm, but we don’t have the control to regulate every use. That said, we believe that our business will be best served if our technology is used for peaceful purposes—to work alongside people as trusted assistants and remove them from harm’s way. We do not want to see our technology used to cause harm or promote violence. Our restrictions are similar to those of other manufacturers or technology companies that take steps to reduce or eliminate the violent or unlawful use of their products.
Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: Assuming the organization doing the restricting is a private organization and the robot and its software is sold vs. leased or “managed,” there aren't strong legal reasons to restrict use. That being said, the manufacturer likewise has no obligation to continue supporting that specific robot or customer going forward. However, given that we are only at the very edge of how robots will reshape a great deal of society, it is in the best interest for the manufacturer and user to be honest with each other about their respective goals. Right now, you're not only investing in the initial purchase and relationship, you're investing in the promise of how you can help each other succeed in the future.
“If a robot is being used in a way that is irresponsible due to safety: intervene! If it’s unethical: speak up!”
—Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics
What can you realistically do to make sure that people who buy your robots use them in the ways that you intend?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: We maintain a close collaboration with our customers to ensure their success with our solution. So for us, we have refrained from technical solutions to block unintended use.
Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We vet our customers to make sure that their desired applications are things that Spot can support, and are in alignment with our Terms and Conditions of Sale. We’ve turned away customers whose applications aren’t a good match with our technology. If customers misuse our technology, we’re clear in our Terms of Sale that their violations may void our warranty and prevent their robots from being updated, serviced, repaired, or replaced. We may also repossess robots that are not purchased, but leased. Finally, we will refuse future sales to customers that violate our Terms of Sale.
Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: We typically work with our clients ahead of the purchase to make sure their expectations match reality, in particular on aspects like safety, supervisory requirements, and usability. It's far worse to sell a robot that'll sit on a shelf or worse, cause harm, then to not sell a robot at all, so we prefer to reduce the risk of this situation in advance of receiving an order or shipping a robot.
How do you evaluate the merit of edge cases, for example if someone wants to use your robot in research or art that may push the boundaries of what you personally think is responsible or ethical?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: It’s about the dialog, understanding, and figuring out alternatives that work for all involved parties and the earlier you can have this dialog the better.
Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: There’s a clear line between exploring robots in research and art, and using the robot for violent or illegal purposes.
Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: We have sold thousands of robots to hundreds of clients, and I do not recall the last situation that was not covered by a combination of export control and a general evaluation of the client's goals and expectations. I'm sure this will change as robots continue to drop in price and increase in flexibility and usability.
“You're not only investing in the initial purchase and relationship, you're investing in the promise of how you can help each other succeed in the future.”
—Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics
What should roboticists do if we see a robot being used in a way that we feel is unethical or irresponsible?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: If it’s irresponsible due to safety: intervene! If it’s unethical: speak up!
Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We want robots to be beneficial for humanity, which includes the notion of not causing harm. As an industry, we think robots will achieve long-term commercial viability only if people see robots as helpful, beneficial tools without worrying if they’re going to cause harm.
Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: On a one off basis, they should speak to a combination of the user, the supplier or suppliers, the media, and, if safety is an immediate concern, regulatory or government agencies. If the situation in question risks becoming commonplace and is not being taken seriously, they should speak up more generally in appropriate forums—conferences, industry groups, standards bodies, and the like.
As more and more robots representing different capabilities become commercially available, these issues are likely to come up more frequently. The three companies we talked to certainly don’t represent every viewpoint, and we did reach out to other companies who declined to comment. But I would think (I would hope?) that everyone in the robotics community can agree that robots should be used in a way that makes people’s lives better. What “better” means in the context of art and research and even robots in the military may not always be easy to define, and inevitably there’ll be disagreement as to what is ethical and responsible, and what isn’t.
We’ll keep on talking about it, though, and do our best to help the robotics community to continue growing and evolving in a positive way. Let us know what you think in the comments. Continue reading