The new bot on the block

How robotics are changing everything

Fukushima changed robotics. More precisely, it changed the way the Japanese view robotics. And given the historic preeminence of the Japanese in robotic technology, that shift is resonating through the entire sector.

Before the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the Japanese were focused on “companion” robots, says Rodney Brooks, a former Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT, the founder and former technical officer of IRobot, and the founder, chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics. The goal, says Brooks, was making robots that were analogues of human beings — constructs that could engage with people on a meaningful, emotional level. Cuteness was emphasized: a cybernetic, if much smarter, equivalent of Hello Kitty, seemed the paradigm.

But the multiple core meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex following the 2011 tsunami changed that focus abruptly.

“Fukushima was a wake-up call for them,” says Brooks. “They needed robots that could do real work in highly radioactive environments, and instead they had robots that were focused on singing and dancing. I was with IRobot then, and they asked us for some help. They realized they needed to make a shift, and now they’re focusing on more pragmatic designs.”

Pragmatism was always the guiding principle for Brooks and his companies, and is currently manifest in Baxter, Rethink’s flagship product. Baxter is a breakthrough production robot for a number of reasons. Equipped with two articulated arms, it can perform a multitude of tasks. It requires no application code to start up, and no expensive software to function. No specialists are required to program it; workers with minimal technical background can “teach” the robot right on the production line through a graphical user interface and arm manipulation. Also, Baxter requires no cage — human laborers can work safely alongside it on the assembly line.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLh2qVrAcXA

Moreover, it is cheap: about $25,000 per unit. It is thus the robotic equivalent of the Model T, and like the Model T, Baxter and its subsequent iterations will impose sweeping changes in the way people live and work.

“We’re at the point with production robots where we were with mobile robots in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” says Brooks. “The advances are accelerating dramatically.”

What’s the biggest selling point for this new breed of robot? Brooks sums it up in a single word: dignity.

“The era of cheap labor for factory line work is coming to a close, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “It’s grueling, and it can be dangerous. It strips people of their sense of worth. China is moving beyond the human factory line — as people there become more prosperous and educated, they aspire to more meaningful work. Robots like Baxter will take up the slack out of necessity.”

And not just for the assemblage of widgets and gizmos. Baxter-like robots will become essential in the health sector, opines Brooks — particularly in elder care. As the Baby Boom piglet continues its course through the demographic python, the need for attendants is outstripping supply. No wonder: the work is low-paid and demanding. Robots can fill this breach, says Brooks, doing everything from preparing and delivering meals to shuttling laundry, changing bedpans and mopping floors.

“Again, the basic issue is dignity,” Brooks said. “Robots can free people from the more menial and onerous aspects of elder care, and they can deliver an extremely high level of service, providing better quality of life for seniors.”

Ultimately, robots could be more app than hardware: the sexy operating system on Joaquin Phoenix’s mobile device in the recent film “Her” may not be far off the mark. Basically, you’ll carry a “robot app” on your smartphone. The phone can be docked to a compatible mechanism — say, a lawn mower, or car, or humanoid mannequin — resulting in an autonomous device ready to trim your greensward, chauffeur you to the opera, or mix your Mojitos.

YDreams Robotics, a company co-founded by Brooks protégé Artur Arsenio, is actively pursuing this line of research.

“It’s just a very efficient way of marketing robots to mass consumers,” says Arsenio. “Smartphones basically have everything you need, including cameras and sensors, to turn mere things into robots.”

YDream has its first product coming out in April: a lamp. It’s a very fine if utterly unaware desk lamp on its own, says Artur, but when you connect it to a smartphone loaded with the requisite app, it can do everything from intelligently adjusting lighting to gauging your emotional state.

“It uses its sensors to interface socially,” Artur says. “It can determine how you feel by your facial expressions and voice. In a video conference, it can tell you how other participants are feeling. Or if it senses you’re sad, it may Facebook your girlfriend that you need cheering up.”

Yikes. That may be a bit more interaction than you want from a desk lamp, but get used to it. Robots could intrude in ways that may seem a little off-putting at first — but that’s a marker of any new technology. Moreover, says Paul Saffo, a consulting professor at Stanford’s School of Engineering and a technology forecaster of repute, the highest use of robots won’t be doing old things better. It will be doing new things, things that haven’t been done before, things that weren’t possible before the development of key technology.

“Whenever we have new tech, we invariably try to use it to do old things in a new way — like paving cow paths,” says Saffo. “But the sooner we get over that — the sooner we look beyond the cow paths — the better off we’ll be. Right now, a lot of the thinking is, ‘Let’s have robots drive our cars, and look like people, and be physical objects.’

But the most important robots working today don’t have physical embodiments, says Saffo — think of them as ether-bots, if you will. Your credit application? It’s a disembodied robot that gets first crack at that. And the same goes for your resume when you apply for a job.

In short, robots already are embedded in our lives in ways we don’t think of as “robotic.” This trend will only accelerate. At a certain point, things may start feeling a little — well Singularity-ish. Not to worry — it’s highly unlikely Skynet will rain nuclear missiles down on us anytime soon. But the melding of robotic technology with dumb things nevertheless presents some profound challenges — mainly because robots and humans react on disparate time scales.

“The real questions now are authority and accountability,” says Saffo. “In other words, we have to figure out how to balance the autonomy systems need to function with the control we need to ensure safety.”

Saffo cites modern passenger planes like the Airbus 330 as an example.

“Essentially they’re flying robots,” he says. “And they fly beautifully, conserving fuel to the optimal degree and so forth. But the design limits are so tight — if they go too fast, they can fall apart; if they go too slow, they stall. And when something goes wrong, the pilot has perhaps 50 kilometers to respond. At typical speeds, that doesn’t add up to much reaction time.”

Saffo noted the crash of Air France Flight 447 in the mid-Atlantic in 2009 involved an Airbus 330. Investigations revealed the likely cause was turbulence complicated by the icing up of the plane’s speed sensors. This caused the autopilot to disengage, and the plane began to roll. The pilots had insufficient time to compensate, and the aircraft slammed into the water at 107 knots.

“The pilot figured out what was wrong — but it was 20 seconds too late,” says Saffo. “To me, it shows we need to devote real effort to defining boundary parameters on autonomous systems. We have to communicate with our robots better. Ideally, we want a human being constantly monitoring the system, so he or she can intervene when necessary. And we need to establish parameters that make intervention even possible.”

Rod Brooks will be speaking at the upcoming Solid Conference in May. If you are interested in robotics and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter.

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  • http://gumption.typepad.com Joe McCarthy

    Interesting set of observations / prognostications.

    Brooks’ distinction between cute and pragmatic, and subsequent prediction about Baxter-like robots in the health sector (e.g., for elder care), coupled with earlier accounts of Paro, a baby seal robotic companion for elders, lead me to wonder how well the distinction will hold.

    BTW, the Joaquin Phoenix film I believe you are referring to is entitled “Her”.

  • Nicholas Gruen

    To use your expression, judging the “boundary parameters on autonomous systems” is roughly what Tyler Cowen is talking about as the skill that will be increasingly rewarded in the labour market that is just starting to come into view.

  • pacificdude

    It’s unfortunate that “Robot” is such an irresistible word for headline writers. The phrase “your job will be automated away” is much scarier and more accurate for many jobs than “robots will replace you” because it’s inclusive of the knowledge work that is being automated. For many jobs, it will be all software. For jobs that require hardware in order to replace a human, anthropomorphic thinking is an artificial constraint. The workspaces where Baxter will work were designed for humans. Is that really how they would be designed from scratch without human factors?

    • mikemikemikemike

      +1 People have a hard time grasping simple economics as well as they do concepts like that in Terminator or I, Robot.

      It’s much less sensational to think about things as simple as choosing to interact on the Internet (e.g., Facebook, Disqus, etc.), instead of meeting for dinner and drinks at the local restaurant, effectively contributes to restaurateur who’s been in business for the past 25 years being “tractored out”.

  • Travis Young

    I have to admit, the phrase “be physical objects” made me stop and think. And realize that when I say “I’m hungry” to my phone and it tells me where I can go get food? That’s something I expected out of a robot companion when I was a kid.