How Toyota Research Envisions the Future of Robots

TRI CEO Gill Pratt says the plan is to create robots for amplifying, rather than replacing, human beings

5 min read
Toyota home robot
Photo: TRI

Yesterday, the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) showed off some of the projects that it’s been working on recently, including a ceiling-mounted robot that could one day help us with household chores. That system is just one example of how TRI envisions the future of robotics and artificial intelligence. As TRI CEO Gill Pratt told us, the company is focusing on robotics and AI technology for “amplifying, rather than replacing, human beings.” In other words, Toyota wants to develop robots not for convenience or to do our jobs for us, but rather to allow people to continue to live and work independently even as we age.

To better understand Toyota’s vision of robotics 15 to 20 years from now, it’s worth watching the 20-minute video below, which depicts various scenarios “where the application of robotic capabilities is enabling members of an aging society to live full and independent lives in spite of the challenges that getting older brings.” It’s a long video, but it helps explains TRI’s perspective on how robots will collaborate with humans in our daily lives over the next couple of decades.

Those are some interesting conceptual telepresence-controlled bipeds they’ve got running around in that video, right?

For more details, we sent TRI some questions on how it plans to go from concepts like the ones shown in the video to real products that can be deployed in human environments. Below are answers from TRI CEO Gill Pratt, who is also chief scientist for Toyota Motor Corp.; Steffi Paepcke, senior UX designer at TRI; and Max Bajracharya, VP of robotics at TRI.

IEEE Spectrum: TRI seems to have a more explicit focus on eventual commercialization than most of the robotics research that we cover. At what point TRI starts to think about things like reliability and cost?

Toyota robot loading dishwasher Toyota is exploring robots capable of manipulating dishes in a sink and a dishwasher, performing experiments and simulations to make sure that the robots can handle a wide range of conditions. Photo: TRI

Gill Pratt: It’s a really interesting question, because the normal way to think about this would be to say, well, both reliability and cost are product development tasks. But actually, we need to think about it at the earliest possible stage with research as well. The hardware that we use in the laboratory for doing experiments, we don’t worry about cost there, or not nearly as much as you’d worry about for a product. However, in terms of what research we do, we very much have to think about, is it possible (if the research is successful) for it to end up in a product that has a reasonable cost. Because if a customer can’t afford what we come up with, maybe it has some academic value but it’s not actually going to make a difference in their quality of life in the real world. So we think about cost very much from the beginning.

The same is true with reliability. Right now, we’re working very hard to make our control techniques robust to wide variations in the environment. For instance, in work that Russ Tedrake is doing with manipulating dishes in a sink and a dishwasher, both in physical testing and in simulation, we’re doing thousands and now millions of different experiments to make sure that we can handle the edge cases and it works over a very wide range of conditions.

A tremendous amount of work that we do is trying to bring robotics out of the age of doing demonstrations. There’s been a history of robotics where for some time, things have not been reliable, so we’d catch the robot succeeding just once and then show that video to the world, and people would get the mis-impression that it worked all of the time. Some researchers have been very good about showing the blooper reel too, to show that some of the time, robots don’t work.

“A tremendous amount of work that we do is trying to bring robotics out of the age of doing demonstrations. There’s been a history of robotics where for some time, things have not been reliable, so we’d catch the robot succeeding just once and then show that video to the world, and people would get the mis-impression that it worked all of the time.”

In the spirit of sharing things that didn’t work, can you tell us a bit about some of the robots that TRI has had under development that didn’t make it into the demo yesterday because they were abandoned along the way?

Steffi Paepcke: We’re really looking at how we can connect people; it can be hard to stay in touch and see our loved ones as much as we would like to. There have been a few prototypes that we’ve worked on that had to be put on the shelf, at least for the time being. We were exploring how to use light so that people could be ambiently aware of one another across distances. I was very excited about that—the internal name was “glowing orb.” For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out, but it was really fascinating to investigate different modalities for keeping in touch.

Another prototype we worked on—we found through our research that grocery shopping is obviously an important part of life, and for a lot of older adults, it’s not necessarily the right answer to always have groceries delivered. Getting up and getting out of the house keeps you physically active, and a lot of people prefer to continue doing it themselves. But it can be challenging, especially if you’re purchasing heavy items that you need to transport. We had a prototype that assisted with grocery shopping, but when we pivoted our focus to Japan, we found that the inside of a Japanese home really needs to stay inside, and the outside needs to stay outside, so a robot that traverses both domains is probably not the right fit for a Japanese audience, and those were some really valuable lessons for us.

Toyota gantry robot Toyota recently demonstrated a gantry robot that would hang from the ceiling to perform tasks like wiping surfaces and clearing clutter. Photo: TRI

I love that TRI is exploring things like the gantry robot both in terms of near-term research and as part of its long-term vision, but is a robot like this actually worth pursuing? Or more generally, what’s the right way to compromise between making an environment robot friendly, and asking humans to make changes to their homes?

Max Bajracharya: We think a lot about the problems that we’re trying to address in a holistic way. We don’t want to just give people a robot, and assume that they’re not going to change anything about their lifestyle. We have a lot of evidence from people who use automated vacuum cleaners that people will adapt to the tools you give them, and they’ll change their lifestyle. So we want to think about what is that trade between changing the environment, and giving people robotic assistance and tools.

We certainly think that there are ways to make the gantry system plausible. The one you saw today is obviously a prototype and does require significant infrastructure. If we’re going to retrofit a home, that isn’t going to be the way to do it. But we still feel like we’re very much in the prototype phase, where we’re trying to understand whether this is worth it to be able to bypass navigation challenges, and coming up with the pros and cons of the gantry system. We’re evaluating whether we think this is the right approach to solving the problem.

To what extent do you think humans should be either directly or indirectly in the loop with home and service robots?

Bajracharya: Our goal is to amplify people, so achieving this is going to require robots to be in a loop with people in some form. One thing we have learned is that using people in a slow loop with robots, such as teaching them or helping them when they make mistakes, gives a robot an important advantage over one that has to do everything perfectly 100 percent of the time. In unstructured human environments, robots are going to encounter corner cases, and are going to need to learn to adapt. People will likely play an important role in helping the robots learn.

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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