NASA's Robonaut-2 (R2), a semi-humanoid robot co-developed with GM, will rocket to space on the shuttle Discovery later this year as part of NASA's final space shuttle mission. It will be the first human-like robot NASA has sent to space.
Once it gets to space, R2 will be confined to the inside of the International Space Station (ISS) while astronauts test its ability to operate in zero-g. It may eventually get space-certified like its non-humanoid relative, Dextre, a two-armed dexterous manipulator developed by the Canadian Space Agency. Dextre currently assists in tasks outside the space station.
NASA engineers have less than 6 months to get R2 ready for flight, including vibration, vacuum, and radiation tests. Watch this video to see how they'll do it.
R2 will launch on STS-133, scheduled for September, and will remain on the ISS.
On March 9th, House Resolution 1055 -- introduced by Pennsylvania representative Mike Doyle -- passed in the House, designating the week of April 10-18 as National Robotics Week. The Congressional Robotics Caucus, with some lobbying from iRobot Corporation and other organizations, introduced the resolution to promote activities that help raise awareness of and interest in the nation's growing robotics industry.
What is the Congressional Robotics Caucus, you may ask? In between healthcare, budgeting, recessing, showing up on the Colbert Report, and all the other activities our congresscritters are busy with, the bipartisan committee works hard to understand the various fields of robotics and tries to support them through their work in Congress. Most of the reps on the committee come from states with a strong academic or business presence in robotics, like California, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, or places with agricultural or manufacturing industries that field a lot of robots. They receive regular briefings from experts in the field to understand what we're doing here in the US and how competitive we are on a global scale.
So here we are at National Robotics Week. Perhaps not coincidentally, this also happens to be the week of the FIRST robotics championship event in Atlanta, one of the largest gatherings of current and aspiring roboticists in the world. But if you don't happen to be there, plenty of other cities -- big and small -- around the country are celebrating with mini-competitions, classes, laboratory open houses, block parties, and more. The full calendar of events is here. You can alternatively roll your own.
There are plenty of officially recognized Days, Weeks, and Months designed to raise awareness that mean very little to most people, but I'm actually really excited about NRW. Robotics has a unique way of engaging people and getting them excited about technology that looks straight out of sci-fi, and using it as a vehicle to get kids into STEM fields and adults into learning about and supporting our industry is really effective. Check out the events in your area, encourage your friends to attend, and don't forget your shirt!
Number of Americans who participated in Pilates last year: 8.6 million
I arrived at the 8.6 million estimate based on data from the latest edition of World Robotics, a great numbers-filled report prepared annually by the International Federation of Robotics, or IFR. The report came out late last year -- I finally had time to take a look at it -- and refers to the robot market up to the end of 2008.
First, some nomenclature. The study divides robots in two categories: industrial robots and service robots. The first category includes welding systems, assembly manipulators, silicon wafer handlers -- you know, that kind of big, heavy, expensive, many-degrees-of-freedom machines. The second category consists of two subcategories: professional service robots (things like bomb-disposal bots, surgical systems, milking robots) and personal service robots (vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, all sorts of robot hobby kits and toys).
As you can see from the chart above, the number of industrial robots grew to 1.3 million in 2008 from about 1 million in 2007, and service robots grew to 7.3 million from 5.5 million. So for industrial and service robots combined it's a 32 percent increase from 2007 to 2008, and that's huge.
That said, you have to understand the numbers. The World Robotics report doesn't add up industrial and service robots. I do. The report keeps these two categories separate, I believe, because these are very different robots in terms of complexity and cost: an industrial robot can be a multimillion dollar manipulator (like the Kuka KR 1000 titan, below), whereas a service robot can be a $50 dollar toy robot.
Another reason to keep them separate: the total numbers for each category mean different things. The total of industrial robots is for "'worldwide operational stock," or robots actually operational today. On the other hand, the total of service robots consists of units sold up to the end 2008, which includes robots no longer in operation like that first-generation Roomba you harvested for parts long ago.
So why do I add the numbers? Well, because I think it's kind of cool to have a number for the world's robot population.
Now on to some highlights from the report. First, industrial robots.
According to the report, 2008 sales reached 113,000 units, which is about the same as the previous year. It's a weak result, and the culprit, as you might have guessed, is the global economic meltdown.
A breakdown by region. Of the 2008 robot sales, more than half, or about 60,300 units, went to Asian countries (including Australia and New Zealand). The world's largest market, Japan, continues to see a decline, with supply falling by 8 percent to about 33,100 units. But Korea and emerging markets like China and the Southeast Asian countries and India saw increases in sales, with Korea adding 11,600 robots, up 28 percent from 2007, China adding 7,900 units, an increase of 20 percent, and Taiwan's robot acquisitions surging by 40 percent.
In the Americas, the robot market grew by 17,200 units, or 12 percent less than in 2007. Auto industry, the main robot buyer, retreated and robot sales plunged.
Robot sales in Europe stagnated at about 35,100 units, with Germany taking the lead, adding 15,200 robots, 4 percent more than in 2007. Italy, Europe's second largest market after Germany, added 4,800 units and France, 2,600 robots.
So the total of industrial robots in 2008? First, a number that I hadn't seen before. The report says that "total accumulated yearly sales, measured since the introduction of industrial robots in industry at the end of 1960s, amounted to more than 1,970,000 units at the end of 2008." That's basically the total of industrial robots sold in the world. Ever. Cool! So to get the total of industrial robots in operation you need to remove the ones that have been taken out of service. People use different statistical models to do that, arriving at different numbers. The World Robotics report gives an estimate between 1,036,000 and 1,300,000 units.
Still according to the report, world industrial robot sales amounted to about US $6.2 billion in 2008. But this amount doesn't include cost of software, peripherals, and system If you were to add that up, the market would be some three times larger, or around $19 billion.
Now on to service robots.
First, some more nomenclature. The World Robotics report differentiates between two kinds of service robots: service robots for professional use and service robots for personal use. That's because the personal ones are sold for much less and are mass produced.
According to the report, 63,000 service robots for professional use were sold in 2008, a market valued at $11.2 billion.
A breakdown by application: 30 percent (20,000 units) for defense, security, and rescue applications; 23 percent for milking robots; 9 percent for cleaning robots; 8 percent each for medical and underwater robots; 7 percent for construction and demolition robots; 6 percent for robot platforms for general use; and 5 percent for logistic systems.
As for service robots for personal use: 4.4 million units sold for home applications (vacuuming and lawn mowing bots) and about 2.8 million for entertainment and leisure (toy robots, hobby systems, and educational bots).
And here's an eye opening number: In 2008 alone about 940,000 vacuum cleaning robots (like the iRobot Roomba 562 Pet Series above) were sold, almost 50 percent more than in 2007. That's 1 million new living rooms getting cleaned by robots!
Finally, a forecast. The report estimates that 49,000 professional service robots and 11.6 million personal service robots will be sold between 2009 and 2012.
A note about this last bullet point. If we get this forecast and add it up to a little over 1 million industrial robots (their growth is very slow), we'd get a grand total world robot population of nearly 13 million by around 2011 or 2012. That would mean one robot for every person in Zambia. Or Illinois.
As usual, a special thanks go to the IFR statistical department folks for putting this report together.
It only has one wheel, but Honda's futuristic personal mobility device, called the U3-X, is no pedal-pusher. The unicycle of the future moves as you move, wheeling you to your destination simply by sensing your body tilting this way or that, Segway style.
Honda says the machine is designed for indoor use, but last week, when the company demoed it for us in New York, it worked just fine in Times Square. Watching the Honda engineers riding it around on a Broadway sidewalk was like getting a glimpse of the future.
I also got a chance to try the U3-X -- not on Broadway, but at a hotel conference room nearby. Following the instructions of the cheerful Shin-ichiro Kobashi, the U3-X lead engineer, I hopped on the seat and took a few seconds to orient myself.
After some tentative leaning to test how far I could go without falling, I got a feel for the device and found it simple to navigate. You just lean slightly in the desired direction and off you go.
It's definitely a trip. The footrests are there just for balance, not to steer. Your hands stay free, and you're perched just a little below eye level, at a height that's still natural to talk to someone standing up. Putting your feet down helps stop and turn, especially if you're rapidly approaching a wall in front of you. And the whirring of the machine is so satisfying!
Watch the video to see how easy it is to ride it:
The U3-X uses a balance control system that derives from Honda's research on human walking dynamics for its famed Asimo bipedal humanoid robot.
When the rider leans his or her body, an angle tilt sensor sends data to the balance control system, which in turns moves the wheel, maintaining balance.
But the amazing thing about the U3-X is not quite visible: its omnidirectional wheel.
The wheel consists of a ring of small rubber wheels overlapping a single large wheel (see illustration below). When the large wheel rotates, the U3-X moves forward or backward. When the small wheels rotate, the machine moves left or right. And when both the large and small wheels turn at the same time, the U3-X moves diagonally.
Honda showed us animations but didn't let us take photos of the wheel itself. It's a really ingenious system that uses only two motors to accomplish all of its movement.
So how fast can it go? Its has a top speed of 6 kilometers per hour, which is a little better than the average walking speed of an adult, and the lithium-ion battery will let you ride around for an hour.
The machine weighs less than 10 kilograms (22 pounds) and max rider weight is currently 100 kg (220 lb).
Because it's such a narrow device, no wider than the distance between your legs, it won't get in the way of other pedestrians or riders on crowded streets on in an office environment, Kobashi explained.
The seat folds down and the footrests fold up, so it fits in a compact package that looks a bit like a slim boombox. It's not George Jetson's foldable space car, but you can grab it by the handle and roll it around like a suitcase.
But the questions many passersby at Times Square asked were, "Where do I get one," and "How much does it cost?" Alas, Honda doesn't know that yet. Guess we'll have to wait for the future to come.
Some more photos of the device in Times Square and slides from a technical presentation the Honda engineers gave us:
UPDATE2:Just added more photos and a video of the android.
UPDATE:Ishiguro just told me that they won't be able to provide "any private information on the model" who served as the template for Geminoid F and that her identity will be kept "confidential."
Photo: Osaka University
Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro unveiled today his latest creation: a female android called Geminoid F. The new robot, a copy of a woman in her twenties with long dark hair, can smile, frown, and change facial expressions more naturally than Ishiguro's previous androids.
Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University, is famous for creating a robot replica of himself, the Geminoid HI-1, a telepresence android that he controls remotely. The new Geminoid F ("F" stands for female) is also designed to be remote controlled by a human operator.
In a press conference in Osaka, Ishiguro demonstrated how the android could mimic the facial expressions of the woman as she sat in front of a computer with cameras and face-tracking software.
In designing Geminoid F, Ishiguro's team and Kokoro engineers wanted to create an android that could exhibit a wide range of natural expressions without requiring as many actuators as other androids they'd developed. In particular, they wanted the robot to sport a convincing smile -- not just any smile but, as Kokore put it, a "toothy smile." And it can also make a frown.
Photos: Osaka University
Whereas the Geminoid HI-1 has some 50 actuators, the new Geminoid F has just 12. What's more, the HI-1 robot requires a large external box filled with compressors and valves. With Geminoid F, the researchers embedded air servo valves and an air servo control system into its body, so the android requires only a small external compressor.
The new design helped reduce the android's cost, said Kokoro, which will sell copies of Geminoid F for about 10 million yen (US $110,000). Ishiguro and his collaborators plan to test the android in hospitals and also show it off at science museums and other venues.
Ishiguro's previous androids, in addition to his own copy, include replicas of his then four-year-old daughter and of a Japanese TV newscaster. I couldn't find more details about the identity of the Geminoid F's master template, only that she is "one-quarter non-Japanese."
But I agree when Ishiguro says that one of the new android's advantages over his own copy (photo on the right) is that Geminoid F has a friendlier appearance and people will be more eager to interact with it. Would anyone disagree?
Are you creeped out by realistic, humanlike robots?
To pay homage to the vast assortment of anthropomorphic automatons, lifelike mannequins, and CGI humans out there, IEEE Spectrum prepared a, dare we say, beautiful slideshow. Watch our Ode To the Uncanny Valley below and then tell us about your reaction.
Many people say they find such imagery eerie, creepy, scary, freaky, frightening. One explanation for such visceral reaction is that our sense of familiarity with robots increases as they become more humanlike -- but only up to a point. If lifelike appearance is approached but not attained, our reaction shifts from empathy to revulsion.
This descent into creepiness is known as the uncanny valley. It was proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in a 1970 paper, and has since been the subject of severalstudies and has gained notoriety in popular culture, with mentions in countless YouTube videos and even on a popular TV show. The uncanny valley is said to have implications for video gamedesign and isblamed for the failure of at least one major Hollywood animation movie.
Yet it remains a controversial notion in some robotics circles. Is it a valid scientific conjecture or just pseudoscience?
There is something appealing about a simple concept that can explain something profound about our humanity and our creations. It's even more appealing when you see it as a graph (the one below is based on the Wikipedia version with some images added for fun; apparently the graph concocted by Mori was more elaborate, according to a note here).
You can see on both curves (solid line for still robots and dashed line for robots that move) how familiarity (vertical axis) increases as human likeness (horizontal axis) increases, until it plunges and then increases again -- hence the valley in uncanny valley.
As a kind of benchmark, the uncanny valley could in principle help us understand why some robots are more likable than others. In that way roboticists would be able to create better designs and leap over the creepiness chasm. But what if there's no chasm? What if you ask a lot of people in controlled experiments how they feel about a wide variety of robots and when you plot the data it doesn't add up to the uncanny valley graph? What if you can't even collect meaningful data because terms like "familiarity" and "human likeness" are too vague?
When Mori put forward the notion of the uncanny valley, he based it on assumptions and ideas he had on the topic. It was an interesting, prescient conjecture, given that there weren't that many humanoid robots around, let alone a CGI Tom Hanks. But as scientific hypotheses go, it was more speculation than a conclusion drawn from hard empirical data. This is what he wrote at the end of his 1970 paper:
Why do we humans have such a feeling of strangeness? Is this necessary? I have not yet considered it deeply, but it may be important to our self-preservation.
We must complete the map of the uncanny valley to know what is human or to establish the design methodology for creating familiar devices through robotics research.
In a recent Popular Mechanicsarticle, writer Erik Sofge discusses some of the problems with the theory:
Despite its fame, or because of it, the uncanny valley is one of the most misunderstood and untested theories in robotics. While researching this month's cover story ("Can Robots Be Trusted?" on stands now) about the challenges facing those who design social robots, we expected to spend weeks sifting through an exhaustive supply of data related to the uncanny valley—data that anchors the pervasive, but only loosely quantified sense of dread associated with robots. Instead, we found a theory in disarray. The uncanny valley is both surprisingly complex and, as a shorthand for anything related to robots, nearly useless.
Sofge talked to some top roboticists about their views of the uncanny. Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at MIT, told him that the uncanny valley is "not a fact, it's a conjecture," and that there's "no detailed scientific evidence" to support it. David Hanson, founder of Hanson Robotics and creator of realistic robotic heads, said: "In my experience, people get used to the robots very quickly. ... As in, within minutes."
Sofge also talked to Karl MacDorman, director of the Android Science Center at Indiana University, in Indianapolis, who has long been investigating the uncanny valley. MacDorman's own view is that there's something to the idea, but it's clearly not capturing all the complexity and nuances of human-robot interaction. In fact, MacDorman believes there might be more than one uncanny valley, because many different factors -- in particular, odd combinations like a face with realistic skin and cartoonish eyes, for example -- can be disconcerting.
Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese roboticist who's created some of the most striking androids, and a collaborator, Christoph Bartneck, now a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, conducted a study a few years ago using Ishiguro's robotic copy, concluding that the uncanny valley theory is "too simplistic." Here's part of their conclusions:
The results of this study cannot confirm Mori’s hypothesis of the Uncanny Valley. The robots’ movements and their level of anthropomorphism may be complex phenomena that cannot be reduced to two factors. Movement contains social meanings that may have direct influence on the likeability of a robot. The robot’s level of anthropomorphism does not only depend on its appearance but also on its behavior. A mechanical-looking robot with appropriate social behavior can be anthropomorphized for different reasons than a highly human- like android. Again, Mori’s hypothesis appears to be too simplistic.
Simple models are in general desirable, as long as they have a high explanatory power. This does not appear to be the case for Mori’s hypothesis. Instead, its popularity may be based on the explanatory escape route it offers. The Uncanny Valley can be used in attributing the users’ negative impressions to the users themselves instead of to the shortcomings of the agent or robot. If, for example, a highly realistic screen-based agent received negative ratings, then the developers could claim that their agent fell into the Uncanny Valley. That is, instead of attributing the users’ negative impressions to the agent’s possibly inappropriate social behavior, these impressions are attributed to the users. Creating highly realistic robots and agents is a very difficult task, and the negative user impressions may actually mark the frontiers of engineering. We should use them as valuable feedback to further improve the robots.
It's a good thing that researchers are trying to get to the bottom of the uncanny valley (no pun intended). Advancing the theory by finding evidence to support it, or disprove it, would be important to robotics because human-robot interaction and social robots are becoming ever more important. If we want to have robots around us, we need to find out how to make them more likable, engaging, and easier to interact with, and naturally their looks play a key role in that regard. Moreover, human-looking robots could be valuable tools in psychology and neuroscience, helping researchers study human behavior and even disorders like autism.
Ishiguro recently told me that the possibility that his creations might result in revulsion won’t stop him from "trying to build the robots of the future as I imagine them." I for one admire his conviction.
What do you think? Should we continue building robots in our image?
We cover a lot of robots around here, and to be fair, not every one of them makes you think “yeah, I could totally use one of those around the house!” Well, I could totally use a PR2 around my house now that it can autonomously fold stuff. Not sure how I’d get it up the stairs, but anyway…
So far, UC Berkeley’s Pieter Abbeel has only taught his PR2 to fold towels and other rectangles, but the important thing is that the PR2 is entirely unfamiliar with the things that it has to fold. Just toss a pile of towels of various sizes on the table, and PR2 will pick up each item, inspect it, and figure out how it should be folded. The folding routine even ends with an adorable little pat ‘n smooth. You have to remember, too, that even though PR2 is quite an impressive robot, the capabilities are mostly in the software:
“The reliability and robustness of our algorithm enables for the first time a robot with general purpose manipulators to reliably and fully-autonomously fold previously unseen towels, demonstrating success on all 50 out of 50 single-towel trials as well as on a pile of 5 towels.”
50/50 on towel folding? Yeah, that would definitely be an upgrade in my house.
Why is Professor Jun Ho Oh smiling? Because, as he told me recently, he has a "new son."
It's Hubo II, the humanoid above, which Oh and his colleagues developed at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology's Humanoid Robot Research Center, aka Hubo Lab.
Professor Oh built the original Hubo in 2004. It was one of the first advanced full-body humanoid robots developed outside Japan. But he's probably better known for another humanoid: Albert Hubo, which had a Hubo body and an Albert Einstein animatronic head developed by Hanson Robotics.
Now Professor Oh is ready to introduce the new addition to his family. Hubo II is lighter and faster than its older brother, weighing 45 kilograms, or a third less, and capable of walking two times faster.
Watch the demo:
A major improvement over early humanoid designs is Hubo II's gait. Most humanoid robots walk with their knees bent, which is dynamically more stable but not natural compared to human walking. Hubo II, Professor Oh says, performs straight leg walking. It consumes less energy and allows for faster walking. Note Hubo II's left knee extended when the leg swings forward (middle image below):
The robot has more than 40 motors and dozens of sensors, cameras, and controllers. It carries a lithium polymer battery with a 480 watt-hour capacity, which keeps the robot running up 2 hours with movement and up to 7 hours without movement.
Hubo II uses two identical PC104 embedded computers with solid state hard disks and connected via a serial interface. The left one can control the entire robot, taking care of functions like walking and overall stabilization; the right one is normally empty and you can load speech, vision, and navigation algorithms to see how they perform on Hubo.
Another improvement is the hand design. It weighs only 380 grams and has five motors and a torque sensor. It can handle any object that fits on its palm, and its wrist can rotate in a humanlike way.
Talking with Professor Oh made me appreciate how difficult humanoid projects are. The challenge, he told me, is not just cramming all the hardware into a tight space, but also making sure everything works together. Cables can unexpectedly restrict joint movements; power and control boards interfere with each other; modules end up too heavy and create instability.
So many things can go wrong. The problem is that, whereas in a wheeled robot a failure usually means the robot stops on its tracks, in a humanoid robot failure often means a face-plant.
Professor Oh wants to make a robust design to avoid such catastrophic failures. He believes Hubo II is a big step in that direction. So needless to say, he's very proud of his new son. Congrats, Professor Oh!
PS: Wondering what happened to Albert Hubo? It has a cameo appearance in the video above, watch until the end...
Everyone who's read about Alan Turing and his ideas on computation probably has created a mental picture of the theoretical computing device he conceived and that we now call a Turing machine. Mike Davey, a DIY guy from Wisconsin, wasn't satisfied with just imagining the thing. So he built one.
Though there are other Turing machine implementations out there -- including a Lego-based design -- Davey wanted to built one that looked like Turing's original concept.
The result -- holy algorithms. The thing is a beauty. A read-write head? Check. A moving tape for the bits? Check.
From now on whenever I think of a Turing machine I'll picture Davey's.
Watch the video below to see the machine in action, then go to his web site aturingmachine.com to see descriptions of the hardware and the programs he's run. From the site:
My goal in building this project was to create a machine that embodied the classic look and feel of the machine presented in Turing’s paper. I wanted to build a machine that would be immediately recognizable as a Turing machine to someone familiar with Turing's work.
Although this Turing machine is controlled by a Parallax Propeller microcontroller, its operation while running is based only on a set of state transformations loaded from an SD card and what is written to and read from the tape. While it may seem as if the tape is merely the input and output of the machine, it is not! Nor is the tape just the memory of the machine. In a way the tape is the computer. As the symbols on the tape are manipulated by simple rules, the computing happens. The output is really more of an artifact of the machine using the tape as the computer.
The heart of the turing machine is the read-write head. The read-write head transports the tape and positions cells of the tape appropriately. It can read a cell determining what, if any, symbol is written there. The machine works on, and knows about, only one cell at a time. The tape in my machine is a 1000’ roll of white 35mm film leader. The characters, ones and zeros, are written by the machine with a black dry erase marker.
So exclaimed one user of the University of Pennsylvania’s Tactile Gaming Vest (TGV) during yesterday’s demos at the IEEE Haptics Symposium, in Waltham, Mass.
As conference participants steered their character in a shoot-em-up computer video game based on Half-Life 2, the vest variously smacked them and vibrated as they themselves got shot. Sometimes it smarted, depending on how tight the vest was on the user, or if the “shots” hit right on the collar bone. For me it was more like a series of surprise punches.
Four solenoid actuators in the chest and shoulders in front, plus two solenoids in the back, give you the feeling of a gunshot, says Saurabh Palan, a graduate student who works on the project. In addition, vibrating eccentric-mass motors clustered against the shoulder blades make you feel a slashing effect as you get stabbed from behind. Currently there is no feedback from your own weapons as you fire, just from weapons aimed at you.
The solenoids and shoulder vibrators are controlled by custom electronics and linked to the game, so if your character gets shot from a certain direction, the appropriate solenoid “fires.” That makes it better than, say, laser tag, which makes your whole vest vibrate but doesn’t give you a hint as to where the shot came from. In that sense, then, the gaming vest is closer to a paintball excursion, but it doesn’t hurt as much (and there’s no messy paint to clean up afterwards).
Other tactile vests adorn the research sphere, but this one uses solenoids for their fast response, Palan explains. A similar vest, using pneumatics, has a slower response time, he says. Plus, it requires a huge air tank that sits next to you on the table, which makes a lot of noise and can be annoying, he adds.
Palan says this kind of device could be helpful for training military teams, in addition to making video gaming more immersive. Or it could make movies like Avatar even more enjoyable to watch, because you get physical feedback in addition to the 3D image experience.
It could also be fun for straight up action thrillers like Die Hard. If this kind of vest could be linked to the movie while you watch it, Palan says, the experience would be that much more exciting. “You could feel like you’re in the role,” he says. “So every time Bruce Willis gets shot, you feel it.”
Yippee ki yay.
Photos: (Top) Conference participant plays the game. (Bottom) Vest with solenoid actuators (courtesy of Saurabh Palan).