August 21, 2014
The traditional vision of a robot has not changed much in generations. Humanoid-looking beings with various combinations of heads, torsos, arms, legs, flashing lights and synthesized voices have long dominated the images we see in popular culture.
Because life imitates art, it is what we have been seeing in the real world, as well. Assembly robots on factory floors sport articulated limbs, while the Canadarm 2 that flies on the exterior of the International Space Station has more joints and sensors than any human arm.
The Robonaut robot that lives inside the station recently got a new set of legs. Closer to home, consumer-focused robots adhere to the human-like form factor, as well, as if making them look, sound and feel more like us will help us overcome lingering fears of robot invasion and accept them as complements to our everyday lives that free us from mundane and repetitive tasks.
But a funny thing happened along the way toward a conventional-looking robotic future: Some of our most evolved robotic designs do not look like traditional robots at all. The Roomba vacuum cleaner, for example, looks like an oversized hockey puck that more or less intelligently navigates around the house before returning itself to its docking station to recharge its batteries.
Apple Siri and Google Now, which on the surface seem to be little more than voice-interactive mobile apps, are in fact the modern incarnation of everything a good robot should be.
You do not necessarily need arms and legs to be a good robot, and the growing diversity in form factors and capabilities underscores just how radically – and quickly – the robotics space is now evolving. After decades of Hollywood-driven stereotypes, robotics is going mainstream, and it’s being driven by the same explosion in mobile technology that’s managed to put supercomputer-equivalent smartphones in our pockets and ultra-high-speed wireless networks virtually everywhere else.
“Smartphones and computers changed our lives very fundamentally, all within a few short years,” says Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Lab. “We are looking at the same thing with robots.”
Professor Ishiguro, whose research has focused on making robotics as humanlike as possible, says robotics is very much a mirror of humanity. “The technology is a way of evolution,” he says. “By creating new technologies, we are extending our abilities.”
Those abilities will extend even further as The Internet of Things takes hold. This new megatrend, where even everyday items at home, in the office and on the factory floor become intelligent and connected, redefines large-scale automation and further stretches the definition of robotics. Business will never be the same.
“When people think about robots, they think about things like Terminators and R2D2s from science fiction movies,” says Glenn Luinenburg, a Silicon Valley lawyer who has worked with dozens of robotics manufacturers and organized Palo Alto’s Robotic Block Party earlier this year. “The reality is that robotic technology is already hard at work in our homes and our cars and our hospitals, and throughout the manufacturing sector, as well.”
Luinenburg, a graduate of Western University’s Richard Ivey Business School in London, Ont., says Silicon Valley residents see robotics on display virtually every day, as Google’s prototype autonomous vehicles routinely cruise Highway 101.
“We are seeing a tremendous amount of activity in the startup world relating to robotics, largely because the cost of the hardware pieces that go into these innovations have come down fairly dramatically,” he says. “Hobbyists and early stage startups can actually start playing with the robotic component parts and put things together.”
The land rush to build a robotics competency is already fuelling exploding interest in making North American-based electronics manufacturing cost effective instead of farming it out overseas.
“Robotics is driving a revolution in new manufacturing methods, which hopefully will make it commercially viable to move production back to the U.S. for electronic products and computer products that are currently being manufactured overseas,” says Luinenburg, adding that many of the Valley’s largest technology companies, including
Apple, have made significant financial commitments to bring machine-based fabrication closer to home.
Luinenburg says fears that increased use of robotics takes jobs away from people are unfounded.
“We consider it that you are not taking jobs away,” he says. “You are really just shifting jobs higher up. You are going to need a certain amount of engineers to create, develop and deploy these types of robotics and maintain them on an ongoing basis.”
Luinenburg defines 3D printing as a form of robotics, and calls it integral to these efforts because it lowers the barriers to entry for traditionally capital-intensive hardware companies.
“We are seeing devices now at a very early stage that are able to print circuit boards from a plan, which effectively is really lowering the barriers of entry to continued innovation,” he said. “Traditionally, hardware companies have been incredibly expensive from a capital perspective to scale to any sort of size. But with robotics driving costs down, I think you are going to see significant investment in hardware over the next five years. I see robotics as a tool that will help both Canada and the U.S. continue to be on the world’s forefront when it comes to technological innovation.”
Robotics is also advancing the state-of-the-art in areas long considered resistant to technological innovation.
“A lot of people look at robotics through the lens of the three Ds: dirty, dangerous and dull, says Brian Gerkey, CEO and founder of the Open Source Robotics Foundation. “If a business has any positions that fit these descriptions, there is a good chance there will be a robotic alternative in the coming years. Imagine a drone monitoring a remote oil pipeline, for example, or a robot thinning seeds for a lettuce farmer and you get a sense of what early adoption of robots might look like.”
Logan Harris, CEO of SpotterRF, says intelligent robotics can do the job better – and save lives in the process. His company specializes in surveillance systems for consumer and military use, an area where automation is already paying off. Traditional security systems rely on putting up large numbers of cameras, then hiring people to keep an eye on them. Harris says university research has proven this to be ineffective, with the average person unable to register changes in the scene after barely 20 minutes.
“If they are looking at something that is really not changing very much at all, the human brain becomes desensitized to it and in effect can no longer pay attention,” says Harris. “This is a major issue for business, as critical infrastructure is basically reliant on security guards being paid $10 to $12 an hour to watch these screens, but after 20 minutes, they can’t see anything.”
Harris says robotics can pick up where human eyes clearly leave off to secure larger areas within factories and out in the open. Instead of using large numbers of so-called dumb cameras, SpotterRF’s offerings integrate automated cameras with radar-based surveillance. Real-time 3D analysis can detect movement, then cue a camera to alert security for possible response. The response itself can also be automated.
“You have seen a level of automation that’s starting to take place on video analytics, which uses a computer in that sense to do the job of the operator to analyze these video screens,” he said. “That is a little different than what people maybe think of robotics – i.e. something that looks like a robot that moves around – but it is definitely automation, and it uses technology to automate dull, dangerous and dirty tasks. If we can free up people to do things like walk around instead of looking at video screens, we’d be much more effective in how we do things.”
The robotics revolution extends beyond traditional use cases like factory floors and security perimeters. Milo is a human-looking robot that works with autistic children to teach them social and developmental skills.
It uses artificial intelligence to detect and respond to facial expressions, recognize speech, engage in interactive conversation, and deliver advanced teaching curricula efficiently and cost effectively.
“You can give someone the greatest therapy in the world, but the reality is most of the time they need the same thing, over and over,” says Fred Margolin, CEO and founder of RoboKind, which designs and makes Milo. “This level of tremendous repetition means you can’t feasibly do that with human staff members. It takes a tremendous amount of time and investment, and there can be some frustration around doing the same thing continuously.”
Margolin says the robot is a gamechanger.
“It has got 870 pieces to it, with hundreds of thousands of lines of code. In a lot of ways, it’s almost semi conscious. As we have used it and worked on perfecting this, kids are engaged at level that is so exciting it’s unbelievable,” he says.
“Kids who in some cases wouldn’t even talk to staff will often talk directly to the robot.” The Milo robot, which just went into production and will sell for US$3,500 and up, represents a significant leap in cost-effective design and manufacturing, says Margolin. While earlier robots used about 35 servos – each costing about $150 – to control movement, the new device uses just one $150 master controller to control complex movements and expressions.
“We took $8,000 worth of motors and knocked it down to $150 that creates the same lifelike movements that we did before,” says Margolin. “The breakthrough enabled us to create a robot that’s really cost effective but can still do all the things we want it to do.”
Margolin sees further cost/performance breakthroughs ahead.
“With additional advances, down the road we’ll be able to produce a robot for the home that is more in the $1,000 range. That will be completely affordable,” he says. “But right now we think this robot is a pretty incredible breakthrough
Rather than replace existing educational resources or taking jobs away from teachers, Margolin says the robot enhances their ability to do more.
“The robot can deliver the lessons and the teachers can follow up on it,” he says. “It is a perfect one-two punch that expands the capability of the teachers.”
That value-add lies at the core of the robotic value proposition.
“In a very real way, robotics represents the whole process of automating these tasks that are repetitive and achieving a level of freedom for anyone and for everyone,” says Harris. “I am sure Sergei Brin at Google is thinking the same thing. He hates to drive because it is dull and boring. So he is trying to make a Google car so he doesn’t have to drive anymore.
“You could be doing something else more interesting and more worthwhile,” he adds. “I think that is really the promise of robotics: To free humans from doing things that machines could do better, and to have the freedom to be creative.” C+
Carmi Levy (@carmilevy) is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist.