Automaton iconAutomaton

MIT Finally Does Some Useful Research With Beer Delivering Robots

I have this suspicion that if it weren’t for beer, robotics research would be years, perhaps decades, behind where it is now. This is because beer is the answer to the question that everyone always asks about researchers about their robots, which is: “That’s cool, but what does it do?” If you can somehow answer that question with, “It brings me beer,” people immediately understand the value and importance of your research (and by extension robotics in general), no matter what it actually is.

Having said that, getting robots to deliver beer does in fact involve a lot of complex issues, including navigation, perception, grasping, and human-robot interaction. And once you’ve solved all of those, you still have to get groups of robots working together if you’re trying to deliver beer to all of your friends at the same time, which you totally should be. At MIT, they’ve developed a new kind of multi-robot task planner that enables beer deliveries to consistently occur even under uncertainty, and that’s a thing that the world obviously, desperately needs. 

Read More

Why Roboticists Should Join the Trillion-Dollar Driverless Race

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

There’s certainly a lot of questions about autonomous vehicles and how to regulate, insure, and make them safe as we start putting them on the street. But for me what is certain is that we’ll be able to sort through those issues, and a future of robotic cars cruising through our neighborhoods is ultimately inevitable. The fact is, removing the driver is as revolutionary today as removing the horse at the turn of the last century. The industrial revolution made affordable automobiles a reality. Now, technologies like cheap 3D sensing, ubiquitous connectivity, and novel AI algorithms will put self-driving cars on the road within the next decade.

To get to that future, however, I believe we’ll need an incredible amount of innovation—the kind of inventiveness and persistence we usually see in small, fast, nimble startups. These are the companies, I think, that will build the technologies needed for our future robot cars. So if you work in robotics and you’re not paying attention to autonomous vehicles, you’re ignoring a huge opportunity; in fact, you might be snubbing a trillion-dollar market.

Read More

MIT Robot Steals Human Brains to Help It Balance

Based on every horror/sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen, squishing an actual fleshy human brain into a robot would make it unstoppable. And probably evil. Sooner or later, I’m sure someone is going try it for real. Until they do, what’s almost as good is letting a robot borrow an actual fleshy human brain to help it balance and complete tasks requiring sensing and dexterity. It’s like teleoperation, except the user’s brain and body are controlling the robot directly, from inside a haptic suit.

Read More

Video Friday: Tesla’s Robot Tentacle, Subscale Aircraft, and Virtual Humans Getting Dressed

We spent most of this week arguing thinking about whether armed autonomous robots are a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t think we should ban killer robots, but lots of people think that it’s very clear that we should. There’s been an enormous debate in the comments of these articles, and on Twitter as well. Georgia Tech’s Ron Arkin weighed in this week, and we’ll have another expert perspective next week. We’re not expecting to reach a consensus here: there’s no easy (or even unambiguously correct) answer. What we’re trying to do, though, is to provide as many perspectives on the issue as possible to help you inform your own thinking. The ethics of robotics is something that we’re very interested in, and we’ll be returning to it in a variety of contexts over this year and next.

Still, that’s all some heavy, heavy stuff, you know? So let’s all just chill out with a bunch of robot videos.

Read More

Children Beating Up Robot Inspires New Escape Maneuver System

A few years ago, the curious folks at the Radiolab show/podcast asked some kids to hold a Barbie doll, a live hamster, and a Furby robot upside down. Not surprisingly, the children were unfazed by the Barbie, holding it on its head for a long time. When it was the hamster’s turn, the kids were quick to release the squirming animal, for fear that they were hurting it (no surprise here either). The interesting part came when they held the Furby. The children said that, even though they knew it was just a toy, they worried that they were “hurting” the robot (which loudly protested being upside down), suggesting that they felt some empathy for the furry machine.

Now, a new study by a team of Japanese researchers shows that, in certain situations, children are actually horrible little brats may not be as empathetic towards robots as we’d previously thought, with gangs of unsupervised tykes repeatedly punching, kicking, and shaking a robot in a Japanese mall.

Read More

Who Needs Real Friends When Robots Will Play Nintendo With You

For those of us who have no friends, we at least have video games. And thanks to artificial intelligence, the computer-controlled adversaries we play against are always getting better. Most games aren’t at the point where the AI can give a skilled human serious competition without having the playing field tilted in its direction, but that’s okay, because we still derive pleasure and satisfaction from beating them anyway.

What AI is missing is physical embodiment. You know, something that you can scream at when you lose and gloat over when you win. The little humanoid NAO fills that role nicely, and researchers from the University of Tsukuba in Japan have taught the robot to play Wii Tennis, with a Wiimote and all.

Read More

Warfighting Robots Could Reduce Civilian Casualties, So Calling for a Ban Now Is Premature

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE. This article contains excerpts from “Lethal Autonomous Systems and the Plight of the Non-combatant,” published in AISB Quarterly, No. 137, July 2013.

I’ve been engaged in the debate over autonomous robotic military systems for almost 10 years. I am not averse to a ban, but I’m convinced we should continue researching this technology for the time being. One reason is that I believe such systems might be capable of reducing civilian casualties and property damage when compared to the performance of human warfighters. Thus, it is a contention that calling for an outright ban on this technology is premature, as some groups already are doing.

Read More

Is Drone Racing Legal?

Star Wars fans will no doubt remember the pod-race scene from Episode I: The Phantom Menace, where the young Anakin Skywalker speeds through a barren landscape in a jet-propelled, levitating scooter, ultimately edging out the competition. Teenage thrill seekers are not yet able to dash through the air quite like that, but a similar adrenaline rush is now available to almost anyone through the new sport of drone racing, which typically involves radio-controlled quadcopters zooming around a predefined course low to the ground.

The buzzing contraptions are piloted by people with sharp reflexes through video goggles or some other means of obtaining a first-person view, a form of radio-control model flight that goes, naturally enough, by the acronym FPV. Multiple drone-racing leagues have sprung up in the United States, and this summer saw the first Drone Nationals (more properly, the 2015 Fat Shark U.S. National Drone Racing Championships), which took place at the California State Fair in Sacramento last month.

The attraction of drone racing is easy enough to understand. What puzzles me is how an organized sport could emerge in the face of what appears to be a legal prohibition on the whole activity.

Read More

Why We Really Should Ban Autonomous Weapons: A Response

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

We welcome Evan Ackerman’s contribution to the discussion on a proposed ban on offensive autonomous weapons. This is a complex issue and there are interesting arguments on both sides that need to be weighed up carefully. This process is well under way, and several hundred position papers have been written in the last few years by think tanks, arms control experts, and nation states. His article, written as a response to an open letter signed by over 2500 AI and robotics researchers, makes four main points:

(1) Banning a weapons system is unlikely to succeed, so let’s not try.

(2) Banning the technology is not going to solve the problem if the problem is the willingness of humans to use technology for evil.

(3) The real question that we should be asking is this: Could autonomous armed robots perform more ethically than armed humans in combat?

(4) What we really need, then, is a way of making autonomous armed robots ethical.

Read More

Video Friday: Talking Humanoids, Badminton Robots, and Boomerang Drone

The invasion of social robots continues. This week, Japanese robot maker Vstone and telecom company NTT announced plans to market little humanoids that can interact with people and also with devices around the house. In a press conference in Tokyo, the desktop-size robots, called CommU and Sota, held conversations with two lifelike female androids and, later, a male android. (Hmm, this last one, it’s possible that it was a real man, but we’re not sure.)

Read More


IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, drones, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
Contact us:

Erico Guizzo
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Jason Falconer
Angelica Lim

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Automaton newsletter and get biweekly updates about robotics, automation, and AI, all delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More