Robot Dog Delivery, At Your Service

The world is moving with increasing speed toward greater integration of robots into our daily lives, and we’d better begin to prepare ourselves. Next year, in Austin, Texas, a fleet of robot dogs, like the one pictured above, will begin making deliveries on the University of Texas campus. The robots, built by Boston Dynamics and Unitree, will deliver items to faculty, staff, and students pursuant to a network accessible via a smartphone app. Those who frequent the UT campus will have to get used to the sight of the robot dogs speeding down sidewalks and leaping up stairways as they make their appointed delivery rounds.

The robot dogs not only will make deliveries, they will be part of a five-year research program that will examine human-robot interpersonal (or, perhaps, intertechnological) dynamics. The idea is to study, and then modify, the behavior of the robots “to determine how to operate safe and useful networks of robots that are meant to adjust their behavior to integrate with human populations.” The project leader for the study states: “In addition to programming robots to perform a realistic task such as delivering supplies, we will be able to gather observations to help develop standards for safety, communication, and behavior to allow these future systems to be useful and safe in our community.”

It’s not clear exactly what the robot dogs will be delivering and under what circumstances, which I think will make a big difference in assessing the human-robot interactions. If the dogs will be making pizza and beer runs to dorms and off-campus apartments, I predict that students who have imbibed in a few adult beverages and perhaps some mood-altering substances will get a bit of a shock when they open the door and find a bright yellow robot dog that moves like the herky-jerky devil dogs on Ghostbusters bringing their pizza with everything and six-pack of Lone Star.

I also predict that the people who are part of the “keep Austin weird” movement will really like this development.

Robots In Space

Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space.  The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station.  Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.

190723192309234a3550372iThere are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it.  For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.”  For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on.  The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.

As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return.  Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew.  Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!

Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space.  Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food.  If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.

Communications Breakdown

Recently I got an email my favorite uncle sent to my gmail account.  In the email, he posed a question about something, and when I opened his email I found that the gmail autobots had already provided me with three options for a reply email — “yes,” “I don’t know,” and “no.”  Any one of the three options would in fact have been responsive to the email question.

cyberAII found this troubling.  Of course, the proposed response options revealed that the gmail autobots had read the email to me, had interpreted the question correctly, and were sophisticated enough to develop likely responses.  It wasn’t a matter of simply seeing a question mark and generating standard replies; the proposed responses wouldn’t have been appropriate for a question about where something happened or when something was bound to occur.  But the privacy issues involved in this “read the email and suggest responses” process really didn’t bother me all that much, because anybody who thinks there is much privacy in gmail communications is really kidding themselves.

No, what bothered me instead was the continued roboticization of our interpersonal communications.  I wondered how many people, faced with this same scenario, would simply have chosen one of the three response options, used the phrasing proposed by the autobots, and been done with it.  The concept offended me, so I typed a response to the question in my own words — and of course the autobots made suggestions about my wording and employed autofill in case I needed to make the communications process even faster, more hassle-free . . . and less personal.

The whole incident made me think about how, in some respects, technology isn’t aiding meaningful human interaction, but instead might be effectively preventing it.  How much of our communications — from the “Happy birthday” wishes on Facebook to the proposed responses to email messages — is in fact a canned bit of programming sent by pushing a button, rather than the actual expression of a human being?

Nobody sends handwritten letters any more, but is a personally typed, self-composed email too much to ask?

Bad Robot

In these days of constant technological innovation, you almost expect to read about new marvels in robotics and “smart” technology on a daily basis.  But sometimes technological advancements aren’t really advancements at all.

russia-fake-robotConsider Boris the Robot, lauded on Russian TV as a cutting-edge development in robotics with the ability to walk, talk and dance.  Boris appeared on a broadcast, spoke in a robotic voice about his desire to learn to draw, and then danced to a song called Skibidi.  The broadcast said Boris’ dancing was “not that bad.”

But skeptics of Boris abounded.  How in the world could Boris move around without any observable external sensors, they wondered.  And why did the robot make so many “unnecessary movements” while dancing?  (A standard one hopes is never applied to human dancers, incidentally.)  And it also was suspicious that Boris just happened to be configured in a way that would have allowed a human being to be inside.

And then the illusion all came crashing down when a photo of Boris from behind showed a clearly visible section of human neck between Boris’ head and body.  Alas, Boris was in fact a guy in a robot suit — a robot suit specifically designed to give people “the near total illusion that before you stands a real robot.”

It just goes to show that it pays to retain a bit of skepticism about claimed technological advancements.  Before you buy that touted “smart” appliance, consider whether it’s really all that “smart” after all.  And before you go ga ga over a robot doing a twitching dance to modern music, be sure to check the neck area.

Chatting Up Astro Boy

The Japanese have come up with a solution for astronaut loneliness:  they’ve designed a talking robot that was sent up into space yesterday to serve as a companion for the Japanese astronaut who will be commanding the International Space Station later this year.  The robot, called Kirobo, is part of a study of how machines can interact emotionally with humans who are isolated.

Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy.  Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station.  The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room.  Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.

The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development.  Still, I wonder about the underlying concept.  Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.

Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy?  Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did?  Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?

The Robotic Incursion

There’s a new robot out there called Baxter.  Created by Rethink Robotics, Baxter has a humanoid torso, two robotic arms, and a face-like display screen.

None of that is especially ground-breaking, but Baxter offers more.  According to his website, Baxter is designed to work cheek-by-jowl with humans, cheerfully doing the endlessly repetitive jobs that used to drive former assembly-line workers nuts.  Baxter’s “head” is equipped with 360-degree sonar and a camera to allow him to detect humans.  Baxter also has “behavior-based intelligence” and gizmos in his arms that “feel” when he bumps into objects — or people.  The website also says Baxter is easily programmed and integrated into the workforce.

Oh, and here’s the kicker:  Baxter costs only $22,000.  That’s less than the salaries of most industrial workers.  And Baxter doesn’t require employers to worry about absenteeism or tardiness, he doesn’t take sick days or file workers compensation lawsuits, he doesn’t need to be insured or provided with a pension or vacation days, and he won’t steal from the supply room, grouse about the boss at the break table, or try to unionize the workplace.  Is it any wonder that Baxter has been greeted by great sales to the manufacturing industry?

Baxter is marketed as “a compelling alternative to low-cost offshoring for manufacturers of all sizes.”   That is, you can buy Baxter and keep your plant in Dayton, Joliet, or Scranton rather than moving production capacity to China, because when you factor in shipping costs, customs duties, and other offshore expenses — to say nothing of bad PR — Baxter is competitive with those low-cost alternatives.  Of course, Baxter also will be taking away American assembly line jobs, but they were likely gone, anyway.  At least the jobs of providing maintenance for a workforce of Baxters, and the white-collar jobs related to selling and shipping the goods Baxter manufactures, will stay in the U.S.A.

Baxter is just one example of the robotic incursion into the American workforce that is already here and that will become more apparent with each passing year.  Robotics has long been part of the manufacturing world, and now it is primed to move into the service industry.  One day soon you’ll walk into a fast-food restaurant and be surprised when a Baxter-like bot takes your order, prepares your cheeseburger and fries, and hands it to you with a touch-screen smile.

The Hedgehogs Of Phobos, And Some Thoughts On Robotics

If NASA scientists get their way, we’ll soon be exploring the Martian moon Phobos using small, hedgehog-like robots.

Phobos is tiny — more of an asteroid than the Moon we see in the evening sky — and very rugged.  It’s a low-gravity environment, though, which means it’s an attractive candidate for a mission where materials are gathered and then actually physically returned to Earth for testing and analysis.  The tests would allow us to determine whether Phobos is, in fact, a wandering asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity, or whether it is part of Mars that broke off long ago.  Either answer would help us better understand the solar system and how it developed.

But how to explore such a small, low-gravity object and figure out where to do the gathering?  Wheel-oriented devices tend to lose traction and spin uncontrollably under such conditions.  So, scientists and engineers are developing a spiky device, like a hedgehog, that could precisely navigate the surface of Phobos by spinning, hopping, and tumbling.  The hedgehog — will it be called Sonic? — would serve as a scout, gathering data that would allow for a follow-up mission.

Robotics is an interesting field, because it combines cutting-edge technological advances with creative problem-solving.  With robots, you aren’t wedded to standard forms.  If a wheeled device doesn’t work under the circumstances, you can try some other form that might work better.  It might be a spiky hedgehog, or a spinning disk, or something else.  The design freedom that robotic engineers have must be liberating, and challenging — and probably fun, too!

Old sci-fi fans are waiting for the day when every household has a humanoid robot to do the boring chores.  That day may be far off, but the reality is that we all are using robotic technology more and more frequently — in cars, in household appliances, and in factories.  I recently saw a mainstream, prime- time TV commercial for a robotic vacuum cleaner.  I don’t know how it’s selling, but maybe the days of robotic members of the family aren’t that far off, after all.

Robot Art

We’ve gotten used to constant advances in robotics.  Robots have beaten humans at chess and Jeopardy.  Robots do lots of driving and flying for us.  Robots have taken manufacturing jobs formerly held by humans.  Could the next frontier be robot art?

Not yet — but now a robot has been programmed to draw human portraits.  It’s an industrial robot that has been programmed.  The process uses a camera, software that seeks out contrasts while not focusing on every tiny feature in a human face, and the precise movements of a robot arm.

The result is a rendering of a human face that is competent and lifelike — but I wouldn’t call it art.  What makes a great portrait is not simply the professional technique used to create the likeness, but the creative spark that highlights the feature that really defines the subject.  Perhaps it is the spark in the eyes, or the set of the mouth, or the tilt of the head, but the skilled artist will always find and accentuate the special quality that defines the individual.  An artist who draws everyone in precisely the same way isn’t really a portrait artist in my book.

So, Russell’s chosen field is safe, at least for now.  What’s next — robot lawyers?

Robot Juggling

Okay, I admit it.  As any reader of this blog knows, I have a weakness for news about robots (especially weird robots) and robot technology.  I bet you didn’t know, however, that I also have a weakness for juggling.  And when you combine robots and juggling, I am helpless.

Who would have thought that running a search on YouTube for “robot juggling” would yield such a rich bounty?  If we can create juggling robots, can household robots who wait on us hand and foot be far behind?

Rejecting Robot Caregivers

Japan has a problem.  It has a rapidly aging population of senior citizens and not enough younger people to care for them (or for that matter to contribute to the social welfare programs that support them, but that’s another story).


Japan had hoped that robots would be the answer.  They envisioned robots that would care for the elderly and staff nursing homes and hospitals.  They have developed robots like Ri-Man, which can lift and carry hobbled senior citizens, and robots to serve as guides in hospitals.  Manufacturers have sunk millions of dollars into efforts to develop such robots.  Now they have concluded that robots are too expensive and impractical — and, even more important, are unwanted by patients and unwelcome, even in robot-friendly Japan.  As one person plaintively said:  “We want humans caring for us, not machines.”

No one should be surprised by this reaction.  It is not just because Ri-Man and the other caregiving robots look like full-scale toys or embarrassing caricatures of the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still.  Instead, the breathless and triumphal tone of the video introducing Ri-Man, below, demonstrates the disconnect between the views of the entrepreneurs and engineers developing the robots and the seniors who are supposed to be buying them.  Elder care isn’t about technological advances or new frontiers in the science of robotics.  Instead, it is about helping human beings who are failing and who seek companionship and comfort as they decline.  Having to rely only on robots for help would be sterile and depressing. 

The elderly want to know that there is some person who cares enough about them to help them and spend time with them.  Can anyone blame them for concluding that metal and plastic robots are no substitute for a meaningful human connection?

Say Hello To R2, And To The Future

When the space shuttle Discovery finally reaches the international space station, it will bring a visitor that will stay there for a long, long time.  The visitor is called R2 — a robot that represents another advance in robotics.

R2 currently consists of a head, a torso, and arms, so he won’t be moving around the space station at first.  (I suppose R2 technically should be referred to as “it,” but how can you not assign human terms to a humanoid figure?)  His golden head includes five cameras, his arms and hands are amazingly dextrous, and his abdomen is a mass of electronics.  Initially, R2 will be working at a taskboard that will show his capabilities.  The video below gives an interesting glimpse of what R2 can do — including his weight-lifting abilities.  It appears, however, that R2 is still directed and controlled by humans.  I imagine that the next, key step in robot development will be creation of a sensory processing device that will allow robots to perceive circumstances and independently decide what task to undertake next.

I think we are on the cusp of huge leaps forward in robotic technology, and R2 is just one of many steps in the process.  I wonder:  how long will it take before robots are offered to the public, and at affordable prices?  In my lifetime will we see household robots that do the dishes, fold the laundry, and tidy up the house while we are away at work?

Japanese Robot Creepiness

The Japanese seem to be leading the world in robotics, and in particular in attempts to develop an android — that is, a robot that possesses human features.

One of the latest ventures in that regard is the Telenoid R1, created by a professor at Osaka University.  Oddly, it is marketed as a kind of telecommunications tool.  The concept is that people will respond to the eye and head movements of the android and communicate more effectively and naturally than they would by staring at a teleconference screen of a distant conference room full of people.  It’s hard to believe that anyone would really relate to a bald, legless, armless, herky-jerky machine that looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost, but that is the professor’s hope.  (In fact, he is developing an even more bizarre hand-held device that looks like a stress-relieving squeeze toy.)  I found a video of the Telenoid R1 on YouTube, and it is pretty creepy to watch.  Wouldn’t you be embarrassed to find yourself talking earnestly to this thing?

We’re clearly moving closer and closer to android technology, but one of the big hurdles for me will be the sheer alien strangeness of a human-looking machine.  Even if the device was an animated as Max Headroom, how could you get beyond the understanding that you are talking to a bunch of nuts and bolts?