Posts Tagged robotics

Robolego Robert Hickson Nov 25

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While Siouxsie is encouraging more gender equality in lego figurines “pussy cat” mums are dragging their kids, kicking and screaming (perhaps), to lego classes in Singapore. As the Economist notes, the latter is potentially an interesting new development in Asia, where parents (and politicians) are keen to foster greater creativity and team work in the next generation of students.

It may help, so long as it doesn’t become another parental must-do. It would be interesting to run a long term randomised study to see if lego playing kids have a greater tendency to “do well” (however you want to define that) than those forced to go to music lessons, or extra science and maths classes. Maybe with the growing use of life tracking devices and applications social scientists in the future will have a rich data source to mine to investigate this.

Lego is already being promoted as forming the basis of the next generation of engineers in the US. Their Mindstorms EV3 programmable robotic series of “toys” are used in some school curricula, and form the basis of national and international school competitions.

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Raspberry pi [used to teach computer programming], and other technologies, are also being increasingly used by schools to engage children and stimulate creativity. Its an increasingly hackable world.

I can foresee a joint venture sometime in the future between Lego and Craig Venter producing Ventos, programmable synthetic cells for your little tykes to play with.

Robotic Friday Robert Hickson Oct 24

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The Atlantic has two articles about robots this week. The first has pictures of Robots at Work and Play, though its more work than play. Robotic camel jockeys anyone? The most intriguing one for me was the mobile fish pen system that “wanders” the ocean gathering data that can help solve water quality and seafloor impact problems.

The others are what you’d probably expect – military, industrial and scientific bots, with a few gimicky bartenders, waiters, and humanoid robots thrown in. But it gives a good quick overview of the diversity emerging.

The second Atlantic article allays fears (perhaps) that robots and automated systems are inherently better than us. Humans, particularly when several are involved, are better at solving some problems. For now at least. Tired of hearing about cloud computing? The article throws out a new meme – crowd computing.

M-bots that will be able to swarm and self-assemble are under development – for potential use in emergency repairs, or perhaps art.

Depending on your level of technological geekiness, one of the coolest or scariest, robots around now is the WildCat. Look at this baby run!

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Can’t wait to get your autonomous car to get away from (or run with) the WildCat? You’ll still have to wait a while if you aren’t rich. Beyond the cost, is the need for the human behind the wheel to still be prepared to over-ride the system. Designers are still figuring out how to ensure the potential driver remains attentive enough to act. And having a big red button on the dashboard to kill the car in an emergency doesn’t strike me as particularly reassuring.

For more sober reading, the International Federation of Robotics have released their 2013 report on trends in robotics. Only modest increases in the numbers of industrial and service robots in service, but the numbers of countries and industries using them are growing. China is anticipated to have a large appetite for robots in the future. India not so much.

Personal robots have much lower growth projections.

Rather than job destroyers, a separate report notes that use of robots and automated systems can increase the numbers of jobs for humans. At least in some industries, such as the automotive sector in Germany. This comes about through increased productivity, and quality improvement.


Collaborobots Robert Hickson Sep 17

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There’s been a debate in the US that robots and other technologies will steal jobs (a recent study suggests 45% of US jobs are at risk from computerisation). Others disagree, pointing out some robots are filling in gaps where its hard to get workers (like farm labourers), or suggesting that these technologies (like the industrial and computer revolutions before them) will create new jobs for carbon-based life forms. That’s now being put to the test with BMW installing robots to work alongside humans on car assembly lines.

These so-called “collaborative robots” are part of a trend resulting from the slimming down robots and  improvements in design, software and artificial intelligence so that robots can safely work alongside people and be more adaptable in the tasks they can perform. Rather than being aggrieved, some of the workers welcome their new work mates because they take on the dull repetitive jobs. As you’d expect, The Economist likes the idea of greater productivity resulting from human-robot collaborations.

Cheaper robots are also making it possible for small firms to invest in robots and improve their productivity.

For New Zealand, forestry and meatworks are obvious places to install robots to improve health and safety. IRL developed  a robot to help cut up lambs a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have been widely adopted. Elsewhere more robots are being added to the chain. Scion has found that rural communities can feel threatened if robots start helping in the forestry sector. Adding robots to these sectors also won’t dramatically improve the value we get from these commodity products.

Someone has suggested that Iceland is a great place to build lots of robotic factories – plenty of cheap power, lots of water to cool everything down, stable government, and close to some large markets. Once the Tiwai point smelter closes here there could be lots of cheap electricity to power our own robotic manufacturing empire. Problems for us, though, are that we aren’t close to markets, and robots are being brought into existing industries rather than establishing greenfield sites.

Will it matter if robots pass us by? Yes, because it will mean that we probably still won’t be  producing much of high value, and our productivity will continue to fall behind countries we like to compare ourselves with.


Update 18 Sep: Transpower is deploying robots to help maintain the power grid. Not the same as collaborative robots, but we’re on the path. Farming systems may be next.

Random futures Robert Hickson Jun 30

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Here’s a short collection of what, to me, are interesting developments.

Will good design turn more people on to eating insects? A finalist for an international design competition has developed a bench top grasshopper rearing unit. This is to encourage more (Westerners) to take seriously a UN plea to eat more insects [Pdf].


Unlikely, I think, for sensitive Western palates. While crunching on chitin has more appeal than vat grown meat, there are other alternatives also under development.  Vertical farms, and aquaponics (combining fish farming and hydroponics into one system), for example. There are less high-techy options as well.


Smart phones are becoming smarter. SRI is working on what it calls “cognitive indexing” to develop better artificial intelligence to predict what you want to ask by taking account of a range of information.


You can also start making your house “smarter”, with commercial kits becoming available to connect bits of your house up with each other. Welcome to the brave new world of the Internet of Things. Cisco is going large on this. But there are a range of challenges to work through, particularly getting different devices to communicate with each other.


If you are interested in hearing more about what Rodney Brooks has to say about robots (as I mentioned in an earlier post) then this TED video is good.


Finally, I got a mention in the Herald on Sunday (and a new name at the end) in a piece about Wills & Kate & Baby.



Robots and the elderly Robert Hickson Jun 26

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There is much optimism in some quarters that health-care robots and other advanced technologies will help meet the anticipated demand for more health-care workers as the proportion of old folks increases [NZ data here].

Rodney Brooks of  Rethink Robotics talks about this with the BBC, along with the need to think about designing robots from the users point of view rather than the engineer’s.




[As an aside he also makes the good point that current industrial robots will not meet the needs of small manufacturers, who require cheaper, safer and more versatile robots - like Baxter]

However, Rebecca Mead in an enlightening and compassionate article in the New Yorker, describes a more human-centred approach in some US dementia-care units. These have reduced the reliance on medication and rigid hospital rules. They are getting some wonderful and more dignified results with patients, as well as reducing the stress and frustrations of nursing staff and doctors. Similar to Rodney Brooks’ approach, they have considered care from the patients perspective. This has involved redesigning the facilities, as well as retraining staff. It can also reduce costs (or at least not blow them out) because of the lower use of medicines, so seems likely to be able to applicable more widely.

This illustrates that while new technologies can help, we shouldn’t just jump straight to technological solutions for pressing needs. Robots may play an important role in aged care in the future, but they’ll need to be much more than replacement manual labourers. If the type of care Mead describes is the objective, then robots will also need to be great communicators and able to modify their behaviour for different individuals and situations. That will be a big challenge, but artificial intelligence seems to be moving slowly in that direction.




A 3D printed microbattery Robert Hickson Jun 23

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The research uses of 3D printing are rapidly diversifying. The latest application is a lithium ion microbattery (subscription to Advanced Materials required to read full article). Unlike existing thin film batteries this printed microbattery is reported to have a similar performance to commercial batteries. Potential applications are for micro-robots and implantable medical devices.

The critical issues for these batteries will be their ability to hold enough charge to make them feasible for their intended uses, and to be able to be easily produced in large quantities.

Few will probably have concerns about uses in medical devices, but with current disquiet over electronic surveillance, swarms of autonomous micro-robots (government or privately controlled) are sure to meet resistance.

Pilots also optional? Robert Hickson Apr 29

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In my last post I noted the shift to increasing automation on the roads. We are also seeing this in the air. In the US legislative and budgetary initiatives are set to encourage greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka Drones) in domestic airspace. Some fliers are in a tailspin about the dangers this poses to regular aircraft, because of the absence of collision avoidance systems in most planes and drones.

True, drones usually have a pilot controlling them at a distance, so they are not the same as self-driving cars. But it’s possible that pilot-less passenger aircraft aren’t far off (the belief that current jets can essentially fly themselves is a myth).

A range of organisations have already applied to fly drones in US airspace – the Air Force, Homeland, Security, Universities, and police departments. The latter make some particularly nervous because of the fear of invasion of privacy (rather than having weapon laden drones flying over a city). That’s a distraction from the main issue of the increasing capabilities of sensor systems generally and how they are used (it doesn’t really matter if they are in a small drone or a larger, manned aircraft). With drones I’d be more worried about the potential for accidents in a crowded environment.

However, two can play at the spy game, as Syrian protestors illustrated by keeping an eye on security forces with a camera attached to a model plane. I expect we’ll see more of this – there is already an active DIY drone culture.

New Zealand could potentially use drones for maritime surveillance. A Palmerston North company, Skycam UAV NZ, has developed drones for aerial surveillance.

Second hand military robots are also likely to be donated to police departments in the US — for surveillance and bomb disposal work (some police already buy them). With their widespread adoption by defence forces, I expect military robot manufacturers will look for new markets in police and domestic security applications.

DARPA is also sweetening the pot. In early April they announced a Grand Challenge to develop search and rescue robots. A key initiative they are looking for are systems of robots that can do a range of tasks and communicate with each other. If this Grand Challenge is as successful as their series of self-driving vehicle challenges, then we’ll see a lot more rapid innovation in the robot world.

I’ll end somewhat tangentially. This video is called ‘Robot readable world’, which is misleading because robots aren’t always involved. However, I found it eerily entrancing to see how computers are identifying objects and navigating streets.

Update 7 May: The American Civil Liberties Union have posted what they call “a nightmare scenario” of how police could slowly increase the use of surveillance drones to a point where they infringe privacy. The scenario relies on some future technological developments, such as face and gait recognition, improved visual analytics and coordination between devices, as well as broadening situations when surveillance can be used. The ACLU calls for regulations to be proactively employed to ensure such intrusive surveillance does not occur.  As I noted above, the privacy issue isn’t just about drones, but more generally about the power of sensor systems and the increasing number of ways they can be deployed (overtly or covertly).

Update 14 May: In Australia, the Victorian police are considering using drones for surveillance and searches. Chris Laidlaw’s Radio NZ Sunday Morning programme on 13 May  had a discussion about drones that is worth listening to.

Upload my brain? Robert Hickson Mar 01


Another self-made man (and it always seems to be men) is throwing money at digitizing the mind. Dmitry Itskov, a young media entrepreneur, has announced he  is recruiting a team of scientists to, within the next decade no less, transplant human consciousness into a robot. After that it will, he hopes, be a short step to downloading minds so we can all live forever. Unimaginatively he calls the project “Avatar”.

As I noted in one of my first postings, digitising the mind is becoming de rigeur for technophile futurists. They happily gloss over the woeful state of our current understanding of how the brain, and mind, work. The conference where Mr Itskov’s announcement was made (and he organised) seems to be the typical gathering of like-minded techno-optimists (with a yogi thrown in for diversity and spiritual credibility) common  for some classes of futurists. A good (futures) event for me is where you have a broad range of different views and outlooks, and where the real nutty issues (seldom technological) are debated.

Mr Itskov would like to team up with DARPA, who also have their own less ambitious Avatar project. They just want to develop a system to enable a soldier to team up with a robot.

If wealthy folk like Dmitry Itskov really want to improve longevity, I hope he is also putting some of his money toward improving health care in Russia and elsewhere too.

Where’s my Robot? [Part 2] Robert Hickson Sep 15


Part 1 looked at trends in Robotics. Here I consider some of the challenges, as well as provide more information on military robots.


What is needed for robots to be valued and respected members of our world? As a non-specialist I see five main requirements:

Discriminating – It is easy for us to distinguish individuals and objects by sight, sound, touch and smell. It is much harder for software to do so, but this is changing rapidly. As better and more sensors are added to robots, they’ll need to also get better at analysing and filtering the information that these sensors provide them with.

Safe – Not quite Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics at this stage, but as robots become increasingly autonomous in both mobility and decision-making there is a need to ensure that they do what they are supposed to do. As Lora Weiss points out, being able to properly test such independent robots before letting them out into the real world will be challenging but not insurmountable. One potential safety complication is to ensure that someone in their garage or bedroom can’t (or is strongly discouraged from doing so) hack into a robot and make it do nasty things. Or turn them into a real walking, talking spam bot. (Oh wait, we have those already — they can’t read the ‘no circulars’ sign on letter boxes!)

Communicative — Weiss also notes the importance of robots being able to communicate appropriately with other robots, as well as other machines and humans. There will be a diversity of devices of varying degrees of ‘smartness’ in the world, and it is critical that different systems can interact with each other to avoid accidents.

Cheaper — Most robots are expensive, affordable only by well funded firms or institutions. Simple modestly priced cleaning robots are really of novelty value. The price of more sophisticated robots will need to go the way of flat screen TVs before they really take off as common domestic items.

Ethical — Many research groups are looking at the morals and ethics of robots, and human interactions with them. See, for example, the publications from the Georgia Tech Mobile Robot Lab. How we respond to the robots (especially those that look like us) may be a greater challenge. Under what circumstances is it right or ethical for a robot to take over a human job? Surveillance robots are common in the military. There is likely to be growing interest in having similar surveillance drones used for law & order and traffic management on civvy street. Will additional safe guards (and warnings) be required for such applications so that privacy is adequately protected?


Battle Bots

Military robots have experienced particularly rapid growth. In the US nearly 12,000 robots had been drafted by last year (compared with just 50 flying ones in 2000), with many more anticipated to be added over the coming years. At least 50 countries now have military robots.

Some in the military think we are nearing a tipping point [PDF, 1.28MB] for how robots are used in wars. P.W. Singer, a respected commentator on military robots, suggests that since robotic technologies are changing so quickly the armed forces should experiment more with different types of robots rather than lock on to a few tried and trusted ones. There is already considerable discussion both within the military and outside it about the ethics and rules that should govern autonomous robots in warfare. Should robots be able to decide for themselves when to shoot, and if so how should they make the decision? Will countries be more likely to start wars if it is mostly robots doing the fighting?


I think a useful hunter-killer robot would be one that patrols our forests tracking down and humanely killing possums, rats and other mammalian pests. In a few years it should be straight forward to programme a robot to correctly identify such species. Then we could do away with all that 1080 and other poisons. Carnivorous robots have already been designed (as art not science), so an HKP (hunter-killer possum) Bot could both power itself from its prey as well as clean up the mess.


On a serious note, the critical issue with robots may be defining what we don’t want them to do, rather than specifying what they can do.


Interested in videos of a range of robots? Go here.

Where’s my Robot? [Part 1] Robert Hickson Sep 14


Robots have been a promise and a fear for the last century. Up till now robots have been used for what have been called the 3 D’s — Dull, Dirty and Dangerous work. Things like building cars, vacuuming, mining, chopping up carcasses, search & rescue, and joining the armed forces. But there are also robotic footballers, pool sharks, penguins, spiders (yay!) and kung fu fighters. Robots are also starting to drive around town or do experiments (thankfully not yet on us). There may be over 8 million robots already out there.

We haven’t yet got to Rosie the Robot Maid, positronic brains, or Skynet, but we seem to be heading towards at least some of them. Robotic office workers are on the way – oh, here was I thinking some of them had infiltrated our work spaces long ago.

In this blog posting I’m introducing Aridane’s webshot; an overview of the drivers, trends, challenges and opportunities covered by the post:

  • Drivers (influencers of change): demographics (aging populations), technology, defence (warfare), economics (labour costs & productivity)
  • Trends: robots being used for more types of applications and in more complex situations; moving from programmed machines to learning machines
  • Challenges: creating versatile and fully autonomous safe robots, what types of robots will we accept safety, making robots affordable for the middle classes
  • Opportunities: improved productivity and safety, filling workforce gaps

 This post (Part 1) covers the trends, Part 2 looks at some of the challenges.

Current situation

The last few years have seen steady development and deployment or robots in a variety of settings. Industrial robots are making a comeback after two years of slow growth following the global financial crisis. The latest forecast from World Robotics concludes that there will be 1.3 million robots working away in factories by 2014. Current numbers are just over 1 million. Most of the industrial robots are employed in the electronics and automotive sectors, with Asia being where most of them reside. The US is concerned that it is falling behind [PDF, 1.32 MB] in the field of industrial robots.

Robots used in other settings — what World Robotics call ‘service’ robots — are also increasing. These are predominantly military (6,000 sold last year) and surprisingly (to me) milking applications (just over 4,000 sold). The latter are big in Europe, with New Zealand and Australia just starting to get interested in similar machines. Future farmers may need advanced degrees in engineering. More on military robots later.

Service robots for medical and logistical (such as moving freight around) applications each sold about 1,000 units in 2010. The World Robotics report notes only small sales of cleaning bots, but iRobot states that more than 6 million home cleaning robots have been sold. However, World Robotics predicts that over 14 million service robots will be sold over the next 4-5 years.


Drivers for Robotics

Key drivers (or influencers of change) in the field of robotics are ageing populations (leading to fewer human workers and more older people to look after), rising labour costs, reducing combat losses and increasing combat effectiveness, and technological developments (in mechatronics, materials science, sensing technologies, and of course faster cheaper computing power).



World Robotics notes that there are a growing number of more versatile industrial robots — ones able to do several tasks rather than just one. This is being driven by the increasing flexibility of some manufacturing processes, where product lines change quickly and products are personalised for individual customers.

So when will we get a versatile domestic robot, be able to call up ‘Ms Green Robot’ to work in our garden, or get ‘Hire a Botty’ to come over and do some home maintenance?

Not for some time. But just getting robots away from a factory floor or lab is a big achievement. And home and medical care robots don’t seem too far away.

We shouldn’t just be imagining a single house robot either. Robots swarms are likely to become more common in the near future. These can help map environments, as well as undertake surveillance. And with more things getting connected to the internet (see my previous post on the Internet of Things) your future Roomba may be conversing with other small autonomous devices to organise cleaning the home and other tedious tasks.

While the increasing dexterousness of robots and their sensory capabilities are impressive, the more significant trend in robotics is the changing approach to programming. Software is moving away from coding simple stimulus-response actions to more evolutionary behaviours, enabling robots to learn in new environments. Advances in artificial intelligence are likely to result in more sophisticated robot behaviours in the next few years. The August edition of National Geographic provides an overview of some recent advances in making robots more sociable.

There is also a move (as in other areas of ICT) for robotics to adopt an open source software approach to stimulate developments and new applications.

The larger underlying trend is of increasing automation in our lives. Dishwashers, microwave ovens, smart phones, robot vacuum cleaners, robotic genome sequencers, and computer assisted driving (and flying) are all now common. They free us from some activities or help us do others better. In the short to medium term it seems that robots will simply continue this trend. Some consider that a popular future robot could be a self propelling equivalent of a smart phone or tablet computer that acts like a personal assistant.

There will be further blurring of the boundaries between humans and machines as bionic prosthetics become more common. See this video on TED about human exoskeletons.

There are of course fears that robots will take the jobs of humans, but will this be any different from other technologies (think of ATMs, shipping containers, the internet). New types of jobs for humanoids usually emerge.

A transformation will occur when robots start making complex decisions and actions that can’t be pre-programmed. Then perhaps we’ll stop considering them as just devices and start thinking of them as creatures. (Roomba owners can get very attached to them, but it’s not quite the same thing). The goal of the RoboCup is to have a robot team beat humans by 2050. That will be a significant turning point.

Part 2 gives a brief overview of challenges facing robotics, and more on military robots.

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