Tagalong robots follow…and learn

Follower robots have been tapped for senseless pursuits like carrying a single bottle of water, but robots can also carry tools in a warehouse or just-picked fruit from an orchard to a packing station. Artificially intelligent machines trained to follow people or other machines can transform how we think about everyday objects, like carry-on luggage or a set of golf clubs. Now the makers of follower robots want to coordinate movement around the modern workplace.

To train a Burro robot, you simply press a Follow button and start walking; at the end of the path, you press the button again. Using up to 20 cameras, computer vision, and GPS, Burro follows you and memorizes the route. It can then ferry goods unassisted and communicate the path to other Burro robots.

A Burro weighs up to 500 pounds and can carry as much as 1,000 pounds. Table grape growers are using Burros to ferry fruit from laborers in vineyards to people packing the goods in clamshells before loading them onto trucks for transport to grocery stores…

Burro CEO Charlie Andersen says the robots have logged nearly 50,000 hours in the past five years in blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, and grape fields, as well as at plant nurseries.

Questions and answers programmed into one robot communicate instantly to the whole workforce. Informing decisions, guidance and distribution skills. They don’t need a cigarette break, either.

Construction robots marching onto job sites


Click to run

It has long been impractical to deploy robots at construction sites, because the environment is so varied, complex, and changing. In the past few years however, advances including low-cost laser sensors, cheaper robotic arms and grippers, and open source software for navigation and computer vision have made it possible to automate and analyze more construction…

Kevin Albert, cofounder and CEO of Canvas, previously worked at Boston Dynamics, a company famous for its lifelike walking robots, and in the manufacturing industry. He says there’s great opportunity in construction, which generates about $1.4 trillion annually and accounts for around 7 percent of US GDP but has seen relatively little use of computerization and automation. “We really see construction as mobile manufacturing,” he says. “There’s this natural extension of what machines are now capable of out in the real world.”…

An IDC report published in January 2020 forecasts that demand for construction robots will grow about 25 percent annually through 2023.

RTFA. Lots of interesting details, discussion of the range of directions this process is taking. It doesn’t appear to me there yet is a predominant system or approach. Given growth predictions, there will be some shaking-out happening along with the growth predicted for the next couple of years.

Are you willing to sacrifice robots to save human lives?


Supposed she looks like, sounds like, your daughter? Your wife?

❝ A team led by Sari Nijssen…and Markus Paulus…have carried out a study to determine the degree to which people show concern for robots and behave towards them in accordance with moral principles.

❝ …The study set out to answer the following question: “Under what circumstances and to what extent would adults be willing to sacrifice robots to save human lives?” The participants were faced with a hypothetical moral dilemma: Would they be prepared to put a single individual at risk in order to save a group of injured persons? In the scenarios presented the intended sacrificial victim was either a human, a humanoid robot with an anthropomorphic physiognomy that had been humanized to various degrees or a robot that was clearly recognizable as a machine.

❝ The study revealed that the more the robot was humanized, the less likely participants were to sacrifice it. Scenarios that included priming stories in which the robot was depicted as a compassionate being or as a creature with its own perceptions, experiences and thoughts, were more likely to deter the study participants from sacrificing it in the interests of anonymous humans. Indeed, on being informed of the emotional qualities allegedly exhibited by the robot, many of the experimental subjects expressed a readiness to sacrifice the injured humans to spare the robot from harm. “The more the robot was depicted as human – and in particular the more feelings were attributed to the machine – the less our experimental subjects were inclined to sacrifice it,” says Paulus.

As robots become more like humans, develop redirective processes in their “brains”, communicate with us on a level comparable to or better than our meat-machine peers…how might you decide to act?

Autonomous robots can be bigots. Short-term payoffs work on machines, too.

❝ Showing prejudice towards others does not require a high level of cognitive ability and could easily be exhibited by artificially intelligent machines, new research has suggested.

Computer science and psychology experts from Cardiff University and MIT have shown that groups of autonomous machines could demonstrate prejudice by simply identifying, copying and learning this behaviour from one another…

❝ Though some types of computer algorithms have already exhibited prejudice, such as racism and sexism, based on learning from public records and other data generated by humans, this new work demonstrates the possibility of AI evolving prejudicial groups on their own…

❝ The findings involve individuals updating their prejudice levels by preferentially copying those that gain a higher short term payoff, meaning that these decisions do not necessarily require advanced cognitive abilities.

Your new self-driving car might not take you to the polls if it thinks you won’t vote for Trump or one of his lackeys.

Human Bankers Are Losing to Robots

❝ Something interesting happened in Swedish finance last quarter. The only big bank that managed to cut costs also happens to be behind one of the industry’s boldest plans to replace humans with automation.

❝ Nordea Bank AB, whose Chief Executive Officer Casper von Koskull says his industry might only have half its current human workforce a decade from now, is cutting 6,000 of those jobs. Von Koskull says the adjustment is the only way to stay competitive in the future, with automation and robots taking over from people in everything from asset management to answering calls from retail clients.

I imagine that Sweden’s labor culture will require, enable, a fair amount of retraining and education as required to meet this critical change in professional employment. Do I think anything comparable will be the response in the United States when similar job cuts take place?

That’s a rhetorical question, right?

Rolls Royce developing cockroach robots

❝ Rolls-Royce…is developing tiny “cockroach” robots that can crawl inside aircraft engines to spot and fix problems.

The U.K. engineer said the miniature technology can improve the way maintenance is carried out by speeding up inspections and eliminating the need to remove an engine from an aircraft for repair work to take place…

❝ Sebastian de Rivaz, a research fellow at Harvard Institute, said the inspiration for their design came from the cockroach and that the robotic bugs had been in development for eight years.

He added that the next step was to mount cameras on the robots and scale them down to a 15-milimeter size…

Miniaturization isn’t even the hard part nowadays.

Canadian AI company uses humans to mentor robots


The one on the left is the CEO of the company

❝ A secretive Canadian startup called Kindred AI is teaching robots how to perform difficult dexterous tasks at superhuman speeds by pairing them with human “pilots” wearing virtual-reality headsets and holding motion-tracking controllers.

The technology offers a fascinating glimpse of how humans might work in synchronization with machines in the future, and it shows how tapping into human capabilities might amplify the capabilities of automated systems. For all the worry over robots and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, there are plenty of things that machines still cannot do. The company demonstrated the hardware to MIT Technology Review last week, and says it plans to launch a product aimed at retailers in the coming months. The long-term ambitions are far grander. Kindred hopes that this human-assisted learning will foster a fundamentally new and more powerful kind of artificial intelligence…

❝ Kindred’s system uses several machine-learning algorithms, and tries to predict whether one of these would provide the desired outcome, such as grasping an item. If none seems to offer a high probability of success, it calls for human assistance. Most importantly, the algorithms learn from the actions of a human controller. To achieve this, the company uses a form of reinforcement learning, an approach that involves experimentation and strengthening behavior that leads to a particular goal…One person can also operate several robots at once…

❝ …The technical challenges involved with learning through human tele-operation are not insignificant. Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at MIT who is working on tele-operated humanoid robots, says mapping human control to machine action is incredibly complicated. “The first challenge is tracking human motion by attaching rigid links to the human skin. This is extremely difficult because we are endoskeleton animals,” Kim says. “A bigger challenge is to really understand all the details of decision-making steps in humans, most of which happen subconsciously.”

❝ “Our goal is to deconstruct cognition,” Geordie Rose, cofounder and the CEO of Kindred says. “All living entities follow certain patterns of behavior and action. We’re trying to build machines that have the same kind of principles.”

Sooner or later, all this interesting stuff will come together in some sectors of the world’s economy – and a significant number of humans will be declared redundant. The good news is that pretty much every educated industrial society already has a diminishing population. Independent, self-conscious women with easy access to birth control are taking care of that.

Won’t make the transition period any easier for middle-age not-so-well-educated guys.