Happy Friday, everyone! There's really nothing insightful or informative about this post, other than some robot video amusement for your afternoon.
Our first video is from the group Flight of the Conchords, who have created a song that describes life after the coming robot Armageddon. Personally I'm prepared to welcome my new robot overlords, thanks to my Old Glory Robot Insurance, but it's interesting to see the situation from the robots' side. Be sure to watch through the end for the binary solo.
Our next video is the latest from our friends at Boston Dynamics. After a miserable winter spring has finally taken root here in Boston, even giving us a couple of 90 degree days in the last week. We all have our ways to beat the heat -- and it seems BigDog prefers the beach.
And finally, Festo shows us some neat bio-inspired designs for robots and automation. The two coolest ones are penguin-related. First up are swimming robotic penguins, which are really amazing and definitely appear to move like real penguins. Then they show *flying* penguin robots which, while impressive, is pretty weird (and I question the need for them to be "flapping" as they are). Keep watching after that for some really neat applications of the finray effect as well -- I like the giant lobby finrays.
Among the attractions at RoboBusiness last week was Keepon, a little yellow puffball robot. I had the opportunity to speak with Marek Michalowski, one of Keepon's developers, about the robot's place in autism therapy and its totally sweet dance moves.
Keepon, originally developed by Hideki Kozima, is a "BeatBot." The little robot was made famous by a Wired music video showing it dancing -- and indeed, a lot of Michalowski's work has involved teaching Keepon to respond to musical beats. But believe it or not, Keepon was actually originally developed for autism therapy.
It's a relatively simple robot: a few motors controlling degrees of freedom, a microphone, and two cameras in the eyes. When used for therapy, Keepon is remotely controlled by a therapist in another room using a standard laptop keyboard while the camera feed plays on the computer screen. It doesn't speak, can't manipulate objects, and never even changes facial expression, and yet it's shown a lot of promise in helping autistic children develop emotional responses.
A demonstration of Keepon for the History Channel, showing off Keepon's guts and how it can interact with kids
Michalowski said that in a typical autism therapy session, therapists are trying to teach children to respond to them emotionally. The therapist often has a lot of difficulty with getting the kids to establish and maintain eye contact, establish any physical contact, or express any emotional identification. With Keepon, the therapist stays outside the room, and Keepon is their only representative. The robot is placed in the room with the kids while the therapist remotely controls it; they can have Keepon look around at different kids and control its motion in a way that suggest a physical response (for example, when I poked Keepon's side, Michalowski managed to make it look like Keepon was responding to something ticklish).
What they've found with Keepon is that the kids do actually start responding to it. They'll maintain eye contact with it, which the therapist can observe through the video feed to the control computer. Some start petting it. Some autistic kids have a tendency to repeat certain motions or actions over and over; if the therapist starts matching the beat of that motion with Keepon bouncing or dancing, these kids often notice, and start changing up their frequency to make it into a game, watching Keepon keep up with them and breaking in to smiles and laughter as they watch the little robot.
The irony in all this, says Michalowski, is that people at times describe severely autistic people as "robotic" -- not expressive, not emotionally empathetic, and sometimes painfully literal -- yet it takes a robot to bring out the expressiveness and emotion in these children.
Michalowski and Kozima have started a company called BeatBots LLC to commercialize Keepon and its eventual brethren. While the primary application is of course autism and other behavioral therapies, they're not unaware that many people would love a cute little dancing robot of their own. Right now they're trying to develop a low-cost version -- the research platform currently uses precision motors and expensive high-def cameras -- that they hope will gain popularity.
Boston Dynamics, makers of our beloved BigDog robot, have just announced their newest project: to build a bipedal humanoid robot called PETMAN. As part of a $26.3M Army contract, the Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin will be "the first anthropomorphic robot that moves dynamically like a real person.â''
A rendering of PETMAN in its test chamber. Image courtesy Boston Dynamics.
PETMAN is designed to test the suits used by soldiers to protect themselves against chemical warfare agents. It has to be capable of moving just like a soldier -- walking, running, bending, reaching, army crawling -- to test the suit's durability in a full range of motion. To really simulate humans as accurately as possible, PETMAN will even be able to "sweat".
The sweating comes from a special mannequin skin developed by another subcontractor called Measurement Technology Northwest , and of course Boston Dynamics's well-known technology will enable PETMAN to demonstrate the same incredible self-balancing and motion dynamics seen on BigDog.
While we currently look to robots like ASIMO as examples of impressive bipedal, humanoid capability, PETMAN's motion must be faster and more natural -- as opposed to ASIMO's slow shuffling -- and it will demonstrate a much wider range of motion. Additionally, PETMAN must be the same size and weight as an average human man, rather than the short, stocky stature of ASIMO. And dude, it *sweats*. If Boston Dynamics is successful, I think PETMAN will easily be one of the most advanced bipedal humanoids in the world.
In other news, Boston Dynamics also announced another new program, the next-gen Precision Urban Hopper. I think I must have missed Gen 1, because this program doesn't sound familiar to me, but they describe it as follows:
... a four-wheeled robot with one mighty leg for jumping. When fully operational, the robot will navigate autonomously using its wheels, but will jump onto or over obstacles when it meets them. The machine will be able to jump over 25 feet into the air.
This DARPA program, in partnership with Sandia National Labs, is (according to the Sandia program manager) "part of a broad effort to bolster the capabilities of troops and special forces engaged in urban combat, giving them new ways to operate unfettered in the urban canyon."
Boston Dynamics has always had such a fantastic reputation for their four- and six-legged robots, I can't wait to see what the two- (and one-?) legged siblings can do. And not just because I know the YouTube videos will be awesome. I'm also very curious to see how these might eventually be applied outside of DARPA and military applications -- an extremely advanced humanoid that runs, walks, and balances just like a human? I can think of a few ways that could be useful.
The South Korea government announced in 2007 plans to build Robotland, an amusement park/theme park centered around robotics. Yesterday at RoboBusiness, Robotland CEO Eugene Jun described the park in more detail and how the $700M project relates to the South Korean government's goals in the robotics industry.
The 188-acre land in the city of Incheon has already been set aside by the government. Located across a bridge from the airport, the park is well placed to attract tourists (even during extended layovers) from all over the world. The park, set to open in July 2012, will include the amusement park portion, a shopping area, and an R&D business district in a Free Economic Zone which the government hopes will draw businesses to the area.
Why would the government be so willing to support a robotic Disney World? Right now, South Korea has an 8% share of the global robotics market, thanks to about 200 robotics companies (big and small) in the country. Most of these companies -- about 85% -- are in the industrial robotics space, with personal robotics far behind. By the year 2018, as part of the 21C Frontier Program, the government has decided to push for a 20% global market share and a greater focus on intelligent robots that will offer quality of life improvements and companionship for the aging population. To help this along, the government is offering promotion of robotics-related activities in the country, encouraging the establishment of technical and safety standards in the industry, and making strategic investments in companies and programs that will help meet their goal. Enter Robotland.
An aquarium where robotic fish swim with real fish. Day-long courses in robotics for the curious visitor. A massive arena to accommodate the 40+ robotics competitions that take place in South Korea. The opportunity to take a "ride" on a robotic arm (similar video here). A towering Transformer-like Taekwon V that shoots light out of its eyes (I'm not even kidding). In the best traditions of Disney theme park craziness, Robotland aims to push the boundaries of entertainment and interaction with the cutting edge of robotics.
There's plenty to be skeptical about. They're expecting four million visitors each year -- are robots actually exciting enough to draw those crowds from afar? Part of the success of Disney and its ilk is the powerful international marketing campaign built around their movies -- this has the challenge of drawing on the marketing from many individual companies that may not be very well known outside of their home countries. Will they have enough "fresh" material from robotics researchers and companies to keep the park new and exciting? It may be hard to find researchers willing to part with their prototypes to have them integrated into the park. And will a theme park and some tax incentives really do what the government hopes it will: inspire the new investors, businesses, and markets that they'll need to more than double their market share?
As I predicted a couple of weeks ago, the Obama administration is shaping up to be robot-friendly. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates released yesterday his proposed cuts to a variety of military technology programs, and it looks like good news for unmanned systems.
While some high-profile programs like the F-22 Raptor are being scaled back, and the manned vehicles that are part of the Army's Future Combat Systems program are going to be re-bid, Gates specifically left funding for "robotic sensors" and unmanned vehicles like the Predator. He also suggested increasing the initial fleet of Littoral Combat Ships -- the LCS is designed to carry a number of mission modules to be deployed in the littoral area of the ocean (relatively shallow water, near shore, where most mines are deployed), and among those modules are AUV systems.
The $2 billion will include "fielding and sustaining 50 Predator-class unmanned aerial vehicle orbits by FY '11 and maximizing their production," he said. "This capability, which has been in such high demand in both Iraq and Afghanistan, will now be permanently funded in the base budget [instead of in budget supplementals]. It will represent a 62 percent increase in capability over the current level and 127 percent from over a year ago."
"We will retain and accelerate the initial increment of the program to spin out technology enhancements to all combat brigades," he said, apparently good news for iRobot's Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle and Honeywell's Micro Air Vehicle, both part of FCS' first technology "spin-out" plan.
Of course these cuts are only at the proposal stage, and have to go through Congress (where there is a lot of support for some of the programs that were cut), so the outcome remains to be seen. The important thing, I think, is that Gates and the Obama Administration have demonstrated their support for unmanned and robotic systems.
The NRL's fuel-cell powered Ion Tiger UAV has been reported to operate quieter and longer than electrical or gas powered UAV systems. The fuel cell itself is being developed in-house.
In particular, the Ion Tiger UAV tests a hydrogen-powered fuel cell design, which can travel farther and carry heavier payloads than earlier battery-powered designs. Ion Tiger employs stealthy characteristics due to its small size, reduced noise, low heat signature and zero emissions.
"This will really be a 'first of its kind' demonstration for a fuel cell system in a UAV application for a 24-hour endurance flight, with a 5 pound payload," says ONR Program Manager Dr. Michele Anderson. "That's something nobody can do right now."
In 2005, NRL backed initial research in fuel cell technologies for UAVs. Today, says Swider-Lyons, it's paying off with a few lessons learned from the automotive industry.
"With UAVs, we are dealing with relatively small fuel cells of 500 watts," she explains. "It is hard to get custom, high-quality fuel cell membranes built just for this program. So we are riding along with this push for technology from the automotive industry."
This morning Google unveiled CADIE, or Cognitive Autoheuristic Distributed Intelligence Entity. This artificially intelligent entity represents an incredible leap forward for the AI field and it's truly an astounding announcement.
When CADIE's pathways were rerouted so that her actions and the changes happening in her networks were "visible" to her, she responded immediately with such a level of activity that we had to scale down our production servers to keep things running until we (more or less) regained control. CADIE now is, in essence, just another Google employee, albeit a particularly prized one.
That an artificial intelligence can pass a STT and become as useful (or more useful!) than a typical employee -- I'm amazed, honestly. This changes everything.
CADIE has a YouTube channel and its own website as well. Awareness of the internet as a whole has allowed it (her?) to learn from the best of the web designers out there, and also to determine that she "<3's pandas". It seems to me that CADIE is, in essence, just another 14 year old girl, albeit a particularly prized one.
It remains to be seen what impact CADIE will have on our knowledge and how she will benefit the human race in our understanding of our place in the universe and what makes us human. Many skeptics will point to fictional AIs like Skynet or GlaDOS, implying that we should fear CADIE -- but Google's code of conduct is "Don't Be Evil", which I'm sure their engineers took care to program in to their creation, so what could possibly go wrong?
Update 4/2: Yes, this was an April Fool's day joke, both Google's announcement and my "serious" coverage. Sorry to disappoint!
The company has now just given a presentation of their latest development, the Intelligent Robotic Vineyard Pruner. The pruner works by reconstructing a 3D image of an entire vine from multiple photographs, applying pruning rules based on the grower's specifications and then using two hydraulic shears to complete the pruning operation.
The project has just entered its second phase of development which should lead to a market-ready product in about two years. For more information have a look at recent articles in Wine Business and Wines and Vines. Some more pictures after the jump.
The resulting vine after pruning by the robotic shears:
The entire robot and it's workplace:
Sources: Vines and Wines, Wine Business, Vision Robotics
Today is Ada Lovelace Day -- in celebration of the world's first programmer, Ada Lovelace -- a day to recognize and celebrate women in science and technology. As a female robotics engineer, I've been pleasantly surprised to find so many female role models and heroes in the robotics world, and I really want to take this opportunity to highlight just a few of these awesome women that I personally look up to.
Deborah Theobald -- as the CEO of Vecna Technologies, she has helped the robotics group in their development of the BEAR robot. The BEAR is designed to help take people off a battlefield or out of other dangerous situations, and has applications in medical facilities such as hospitals. Theobald also gave a great inspirational speech during the opening ceremonies of the Boston FIRST Robotics Regional on 5 March, challenging more than 1000 students in attendance to dare to take risks and solve hard problems in robotics and other areas of engineering.
Cynthia Breazeal -- Dr. Breazeal, designer of Kismet, now leads the Personal Robotics group at the MIT Media Lab, the nursery for robots like Leonardo and Autom. Her work is at the foundation of research on emotional expression in robots and how they interact with humans in a variety of situations, and the work she has supported in her lab has even started spinning out into new companies.
Maja Mataric -- at USC, Dr. Mataric is the director of the Robotics Research Lab and the Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems. She also authored The Robotics Primer, an intro-to-robotics textbook that is written in a very accessible, informal writing style. It's designed to teach beginners (most likely around high school age) about everything from the basics of DC motors to robot navigation, making it possible for even more students to get involved with robotics on a deeper level.
Anette "Peko" Hosoi -- I originally heard about Dr. Hosoi's work on a robot snail; later, a coworker of mine went to do research for her on a robotic razor clam. She works in the really interesting field of bio-inspired robotics, investigating what nature can teach us about locomotion mechanisms for robots.
And, as I wrote last year, the IEEE Women in Engineering magazine did a really phenomenal issue focusing on women in robotics. The online version is still available here.
Those of us in the robotics industry are incredibly lucky to have these women and many others like them to look up to -- it's a real inspiration!