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.

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.

Robots On The Air

The U.S. may be ahead of the rest of the world, generally, when it comes to innovation and invention, but Japan always seems to be a little bit ahead of America when it comes to the speed of acceptance and application of newfangled technology.

when-paul-met-erica-2So it should come as no surprise that the Wall Street Journal has reported that some Japanese TV network will soon employ a robot as a news anchor.  People are making a big deal out of it, viewing it as another sign of robots encroaching on previously human jobs — even though this development has been predicted for years.

The robot, named Erica, has been created to resemble a long-haired woman and looks like a Japanese anime character converted to corporeal form.  She/it — I guess we’re going to have to get instruction on the politically correct way to refer to a gender-specific robot, eh? — will be equipped with a form of artificial intelligence that will allow her/it to read the news, although the new stories she/it reads will have to be selected by humans.  Erica apparently will be the first “android anchor” in the world.

Hey, wait a second!  I just realized . . . does this mean that the people who currently read the news on American TV stations aren’t robots?  Who would have guessed?

Assessing A Robot Dog

What’s in a dog?  Why do humans really want to have them around?  I think different people would give different answers to those basic questions, and the different answers might just tell us whether a newly unveiled robot dog could become a successful product.

landscape-1510610204-screen-shot-2017-11-13-at-45550-pmThe robot dog is built by a company called Boston Dynamics and it’s supposed to be coming soon.  It’s called the SpotMini.  SpotMini’s inventors obviously weren’t trying to build something that looks as much like a dog as modern technology, materials, and design will allow — the robot is bright yellow and black, has no fur, and has a concave, camera-like gizmo instead of a head.   It’s a robot that clearly looks like a robot.  And yet, aside from the use of “Spot” in its name, the SpotMini does have dog-like attributes.  It’s got four legs, which are shaped a lot like dog legs, and it walks and prances in dog-like fashion.  I’m guessing that it barks, too.

So why do you have a dog?  For us, it’s companionship:  even though Kasey is slowing down, she’s still got a funny, unique personality that we’ve grown to love, and of course Kish enjoys putting Kasey on her lap and stroking her soft fur and making Kasey do embarrassingly undog-like things like wave her paw in greeting when I come in the front door after work.  Kasey’s a member of the family, and we get a real kick out of her.  It’s hard to imagine a yellow and black plastic and metal box with four legs replacing her, even if the SpotMini were programmed to have a personality.

But if your primary purpose in having a dog is security, the SpotMini just might do the trick.  If the robot can detect intruders and bark like crazy to wake up its owners, and then confront the intruders and freak them out when a black and yellow torpedo comes charging at them, barking all the while, you just might have a successful product.  And if the SpotMini.2 version has robot jaws that can chomp down on the right people, it might be even more successful.  I could see people buying a security dog that doesn’t need to be fed or walked or cleaned up after, or boarded when they go on vacation, or taken to the vet and prescribed pricey medication.

In the next few years, we’re going to be seeing more and more of the robot invasion of our daily lives, and it will be interesting to see how people, and social activities generally, adapt to the coming changes.  The SpotMini might just give us a peek at our yellow-and-black robot future.

Flippy’s Takeover

Out in California there’s a “fast casual” restaurant called Caliburger.  As the name suggests, hamburgers are one of the staples on its menu.

448b016b00000578-4905576-image-a-2_1505977728222Caliburger’s Pasadena location has a new worker called Flippy.  Flippy is a quiet, methodical, highly reliable worker who doesn’t take up a lot of space, because Flippy is actually a robot.  Made by Miso Robotics, Flippy’s design is simple — it’s a robot arm, bolted to the floor in the restaurant’s kitchen next to the grille.  Flippy has a spatula where his hand should be, and he’s programmed to flip burgers and then put the cooked burgers onto buns.  A human assistant puts the meat down, Flippy does his burger-flipping thing, and then the human worker finishes dressing the burgers to fit the incoming orders.  The fact that Flippy has only a spatula hand make it easy to clean and maintain.

Flippy sells for $60,000.  Caliburger was one of the investors in the company that manufactures Flippy, and it got one of the first devices.  It has pre-ordered others, and it plans to install them in a number of its restaurants.  And, of course, Miso Robotics will look to sell Flippy to other burger-oriented restaurants.

Each burger-flipping robot will be performing a job that used to be done by a human being.  At about $60,000 a pop, Flippy seems expensive — until you figure that, with many states and cities raising the minimum wage, it wouldn’t take many months of operation before Flippy starts to pay for itself.  And Flippy is never going to miss work, or show up late, or complain about its hours, or become distracted by talking to a co-worker.  And Flippy is not going to need health insurance, or file a claim against his restaurant employer for violating a federal or state statute, or advocate for wage increases, either.  Until legislators start legislating about treatment of robots, Flippy is a lot easier for employers to deal with.

Welcome to the future.  And good luck finding that entry-level job that pays the ever-increasing minimum wage that is supposed to be an economic panacea and allow a fast food restaurant worker to support a family of four!

There Goes Somebody’s First Job

Popular Science has an interesting article about the development of a robot in Germany that grills sausages and apparently does a pretty good job of it.  So what, you say?  Here’s what:  the German robot shows just how easy it is for robotics to eliminate jobs.  And, since robotics mostly focuses on performing basic, ministerial tasks, the jobs that are eliminated tend to be entry-level jobs — the kinds of jobs that many of us had as our first jobs, back when we were teenagers.  Whether it is grilling sausages, flipping burgers, washing dishes, or bagging groceries (which was my first job), we’re likely to see increasing robotic inroads, which means fewer jobs for kids trying to earn some spare money so they can take their significant other on a date or go to the prom.

If you’re the owner of a sausage restaurant, why wouldn’t you use a robot instead of a teenage kid?  The robot in the Popular Science article has a natty moustache and is wearing a chef’s hat, apparently issues some German witticisms as he grills, and will never, ever complain about working conditions or fail to show up for work on time.  You wouldn’t have to pay for health care, perform withholding, or worry about unionization.  And, since we all remember the personality issues that inevitably afflict the teenager years, you wouldn’t have to deal with sullen, hormone-addled employees, either.

When robots take over those “first jobs” that many of us had, I think it will have a profound impact.  I thought getting that first job was an important step on the road to adulthood, where I jarringly realized that not everybody is going to treat me with kid gloves like my parents did.  If teenagers can’t get a first job, how are they going to get a sense of the working world, and how are they going to stay out of trouble?

Robots, Jobs, And The Minimum Wage

In his campaign for President, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has called for raising the minimum wage significantly, to make it a “living wage,” and in many places local governments have raised the minimum wage.  The argument for such raises is that if we just increased the minimum wage, people working at those minimum wage jobs would earn more money, could provide better for their families, and might actually spend more of their pay and help the economy.  In short, the country as a whole would be better off.

These arguments seem to defy basic rules of economics and normal human experience.  We know from our own lives that the cost of something matters.  How many people shop without looking at the price tag?  We also know from our own experience that if something becomes too expensive, we will try to do without that costly item.  So the notion that you can raise the cost of anything without any negative reaction or consequences seems both naive and outlandish.  The across-the-board minimum wage hike arguments presuppose that those who employ minimum wage workers — who are, by definition, the most unskilled, untrained, fungible people in the national workforce — have an endless supply of money and will simply accept a minimum wage hike without taking any steps to account for their increased costs.  If you know anyone who has worked as a manager of a fast-food restaurant, you know that assumption is fantasyland.

hqdefaultSome municipalities have increased the minimum wage anyway.  So, how is it working?  While the data is preliminary, it seems to show what any rational person would suspect — that minimum wage increases affect hiring.  A recent economic research study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concluded that “the overall body of recent evidence suggests that the most credible conclusion is a higher minimum wage results in some job loss for the least-skilled workers—with possibly larger adverse effects than earlier research suggested.”  The study adds that “allowing for the possibility of larger job loss effects, based on other studies, and possible job losses among older low-skilled adults, a reasonable estimate based on the evidence is that current minimum wages have directly reduced the number of jobs nationally by about 100,000 to 200,000, relative to the period just before the Great Recession.”  And more recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that hiring slowed in those locations where the minimum wage was increased.

I’m sure the minimum wage hike advocates will dispute the data, or argue in the alternative that the better earnings by the employed more than compensate for any job loss that might have occurred.  Such arguments seem to me to be both misguided — wouldn’t we rather have more people working, and taking that first step up the job progress ladder? — and short-sighted.  If employers of minimum wage workers are cost-sensitive, as the data is indicating, they’ll look for other ways to avoid paying wages that are too high as a result of governmental fiat.  As the Washington Post has reported, one option that is being explored is increased reliance on machinery and robotics in places like fast-food restaurants, which already have seen declines in worker employment.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Hiking the minimum wage is no panacea, and we don’t live in a fairyland where employers have endless supplies of money.  Don’t be surprised if, in a few months or years, you don’t see that teenager behind the counter at your favorite fast food restaurant and are served your burger by Robbie the Robot instead.

At The Honda Heritage Center

IMG_0431Recently I drove out to Marysville, Ohio to attend a farewell celebration for a Honda employee who was moving on to a new position with the City of Columbus.  The event was held at the Honda Heritage Center, a new building in the Honda complex of buildings that have sprung up in western Ohio since Honda built its first factory more than 30 years ago.

IMG_0433While I was at the Heritage Center I visited a little Honda museum that is located in the building.  It’s a neat feature, and provides the opportunity for car buffs like me to take a nice trip down memory lane.  I got to see the very cool, sleek-looking Asimo in person — or should that be, in robot — gape at the Honda race cars, and check out some of Honda’s other manufactured products.  For me, though, the highlight was the vintage cars that are displayed there, in pristine condition.  They included the very first Honda car that I ever remember seeing on American streets:  the Honda Civic, circa the early ’70s, which is pictured below.

Honda has been an important part of Ohio for a long time now.  It employs huge numbers of Ohioans — all clad in the trademark Honda white uniform — in good-paying jobs, emphasizes quality and teamwork, and continues to build lots of excellent vehicles. Last year, Honda North America reached a new record:  1,862,491 Honda and Acura vehicles.  And for those who emphasize made in America values — which always seems to be someone’s theme during election years — it should be noted that Honda reports that its eight auto plants in North America produced more than 99 percent of the Honda and Acura cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. in 2015.

Honda has been a great corporate citizen ever since it first came to Ohio.  I’m glad it is using the Honda Heritage Center to celebrate its past, its present, and its future.

IMG_0442

Invasion Of The Robot Lawyers

While the rest of us are working, the “futurists” and consultants among us are out there making predictions about what the world will look like one day.  Most of these predictions are dead wrong — I haven’t seen any flying cars around, have you? — but they are entertaining nonetheless.

20150102futurama-robot-lawyerOne consultant firm has issued a dire prediction about the future of lawyers.  It says that by the year 2030, robots and artificial intelligence will dominate the legal market, likely causing a “structural collapse” of law firms.  For young lawyers looking to break into the profession, the consultants forecast, the outlook will be especially bleak, because the robots will be untiring, uncomplaining, bill-4,000-hours-a-year competitors:  “Eventually each bot would be able to do the work of a dozen low-level associates. They would not get tired. They would not seek advancement. They would not ask for pay rises. Process legal work would rapidly descend in cost.”  Yikes!

For the lucky senior partners of 2030, however, the future is rosier, because the report envisions that while legal clients in the AI world will want the cheap labor the robots will bring, they will also crave the knowledgeable advice of experienced lawyers:  “Clients would instead greatly value the human input of the firm’s top partners, especially those that could empathise with the client’s needs and show real understanding and human insight into their problems.”

Of course, some might question the notion that senior partners at large law firms can properly be associated with characteristics such as “human input,” “human insight,” understanding, and empathy, but let’s not focus on that objection for now.

I’m skeptical that law firms and lawyers will be replaced by AI and robots, because I think a huge element of lawyering involves the exercise of judgment, shrewd assessment of the motivations and goals of the people and entities involved in a transaction or dispute, and other qualities that just aren’t well suited to robotic applications.  Of course, you never know.  In the time I’ve been practicing there has been a significant change in how lawyers work due to the development of legal search engines, law databases, email communications, and other technological developments.  Perhaps lawyers only kid themselves in thinking that they are different from assembly line workers and can’t be replaced by our metal friends.

So we’ll just have to wait until 2030 to see if robots invade law firms.  If it happens, at least we’ve got one thing to look forward to:  robot lawyer jokes.

The Force Is Strong

The new Star Wars trailer is out, and even though the release of the movie is two months away people are already buying tickets.  From a look at the trailer, I can see why:  Star Wars:  The Force Awakens looks pretty cool, and may well reinvigorate one of the greatest movie franchises ever.  Han Solo!  Leia!  Luke Skywalker!  Chewie!

As for me, the coolest thing in the trailer is the rolling ball robot with the unmoving head.  How do they do some of that stuff?

A Fully Automated And Self-Serve World

We’re leaving Montreal today, and as we passed through each stage of the travel process at the United terminal of the Pierre Trudeau International Airport I was struck at how much of our lives has become automated and self-directed.

20140621-082951-30591598.jpgWe used the standard ticket terminals to check in, entering our confirmation numbers and scanning our passports and credit cards and retrieving our boarding passes from the printer slot at the bottom.  The agent directed us to an automated baggage loading machine, where we scanned our tickets and input information into a terminal, hoisted our bags on a conveyor belt, then watched while a laser scanned our bags and a machine lowered them into the vowels of the airport.  It’s the first time I’ve used one of these machines, but the instructions are easy enough to follow and they are bound to discourage travelers from overpacking super-heavy bags.  We went through all of the security scanning devices, then moved to Customs. There we found another machine on which we scanned our passports and had our pictures taken — they were unflattering, of course — before talking to the Customs agent and passing through to our departure gate.  It’s the first time I’ve encountered one of those machines, too.  I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we see all of these devices in the U.S.

Science fiction has long forecast that we would enter the age of robots and machines. I think it’s here, now.

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?

Heavy (Robot) Metal

I like robots, and I like music.  So when I heard that there is an interesting robot band, I had to check it out.  The band is called Compressorhead, it plays heavy metal music, and it is the invention of a German artist.

The spiky-haired drummer — who has four arms, which helps when you’re drumming — is my favorite.  This cover version of Ace of Spades by Motorhead lets him stretch out a bit.

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.