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Tag Archives: robotics

A New Challenge for Robotics

It looks like yesterday when I had just started my PhD and I was looking with awe at the first DARPA Grand Challenge (2005). Seeing cars race in the desert with no driver, knowing that the world was being changed before my eyes. It wasn’t the development of particularly new technologies, but showing that research was out of the labs and into the field. It made history. It prompted me to focus more on real robotics. And now it is happening again.

In the past couple of years Boston Dynamics has shown the world that robots don’t necessarily need wheels, but they can walk on impervious terrain using four legs, or even two. But it is not only about making them stand. These robots have to do stuff using common tools, like driving a truck, closing a valve or using a drill. They won’t have the great stability four wheels provide, or the capability of carrying a heavy payload packed with sensors and computational power. The lack of precision in motion will have to be compensated with sensing. And a novel inclusion of a human operator in the loop.

Meet Atlas, the new guy that is going to change the way robots will work alongside humans.

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It won’t be alone, as seven teams are building their own hardware to compete for the first prize.

So what is this challenge about? I have been lucky enough to get a virtual seat at the kickoff meeting. The details are not final, but the main idea is that teams from all around the world will compete to create a robot that can be deployed in a disaster-stricken area, possibly inspired by Fukushima, to perform tasks too dangerous for humans. It is not about being a camera-on-wheels system, but a robot that can perform actions in a semi-supervised way. If this works the technology will change the way manufacturing is done (like Baxter, but in some other way), and it will create a new huge boost for robotics and its deployment in the real world.

There has been a lot of talking about the challenge that I am not going to repeat here. Here is what I think will be the main obstacles towards solving the challenge:

  • Perception: Identifying items that are either usable by the robot (tools, valves, trucks) or that are an obstacle towards a goal (rubble blocking a door).
  • Locomotion: Moving on an uneven terrain. Entering or exiting a vehicle. Climbing a ladder.
  • Communication: Performing actions with little or no supervision from the operator, given the communications constraints a disaster environment imposes.
  • Robustness: It’s not about having a perfect algorithm to solve a problem, but to be able to adapt and cope with environments and situations that in no way could have been foreseen and accounted for when programming the robot.
  • Integration: A lot of components and ideas will merge and fight to control the robot, and they will call for a right arbitration for the overall system to be functional.

Many more obstacles will need to be overcome. People will work days and nights to solve waves of problems. There will be last-minute rushes and hacky solutions. The end result might look like the one folks at Drexel University have nicely illustrated in the following video.

Good luck to all the teams, PIs, scientists and engineers competing to make the world a better place!

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2012 in Discussion, News

 

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What Baxter Means for Research in Robotics

Short story: awesome! You can keep reading now if you want to know why I think so.

Today I was listening to an interview of Rodney Brooks speaking about Baxter. When I saw it featured on IEEE Spectrum I thought: “Cool, let’s see where it goes”. But listening to Brooks describing his creature gives you a different perspective.

Take a decades old task, like automatic assembly. Take a new technology like learning from demonstration. Then show the world that research can go out of the labs and change people’s life. Isn’t that easy?

No it isn’t. I haven’t seen Baxter in action but I bet there are a lot of hacks and assumptions that make it do a proper job. But that’s reasonable, even more, welcome. Most of the papers you’ll read in robotics start with a sentence along the line of:

We need robots  capable of learning from a non-expert to be usable in the real world.

And then it fires up equations, data collection, proofs and lab tests. However Rodney Brooks does something that he’s done in the past, actually he’s built his career around it: he does for real what others only discuss in papers and labs.

Don’t take me wrong, I’m not one more voice saying that research in University should be more application-focused and less theoretical. Baxter is build upon the research people in Universities around the world have done over the past years. Robotics, manipulation, computer vision, they all share the prize here.

This is a praise to all my colleagues who have worked hard and who never believed their research would make a difference. It takes a collective effort to change the world.

And a single mind who figures how to make money out of it.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Discussion, Results

 

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Being surprised by a robot

Some time ago I stumbled over a podcast with an interview of Kristinn R. Thórisson. One part of the interview that stimulated my curiosity has been his (and many others) view that a robot behaviour, regardless of how smart it may be, looses its "wow" effect when it is known how this behaviour is generated. Let’s consider for example the Eliza program: a very simple rule-based program that pretended to be a psychologist. Well, people sometimes believed there was a real person behind it! Obviously, once they knew what was going on, in the best case a grin appeared on their face.

So, is it true that whenever we know the mechanisms behind cleverness, we stop judging it as clever? I wouldn’t say so for a biological system. No matter how much we know about even the simplest organism, it will never cease to surprise us and stimulate our will to understand it.

Let’s return to planet robots. Do we want smart machines? Of course yes! We all dream (and fear) about these androids doing jobs for us while we relax and drink from the cornucopia of laziness. But, do we want to be surprised by a robot?

The surprise factor in a robot is closely related to the concept of emergent behaviours. One will find several definitions of emergent behaviour, together with recipes about how to recognise one when you see it. I personally take the one written by Ronald and Sipper in their Robotics and Autonomous Systems paper entitled "Surprise versus unsurprise: Implications of emergence in robotics":

[emergence], where a system displays novel behaviours that escape, frustrate or sometimes, serendipitously, exceed the designer’s original intent.

I love this definition, not only for its clarity and descriptiveness, but also for its ironic style (I personally recommend reading other papers by the authors, as they are deep in contents and their writing style is amazing).

It looks like that, in order to be surprised by a robot, it must do something unexpected. And this unexpectedness (what a weird word) has to escape even the roboticist’s judgement axe. Wait, something is wrong here. Let’s take a random paper in robotics, and let’s look at the results section: you’ll see plenty of graphs, tables and discussions about how much the robot does what it’s expected to. Even better, there is a desperate race for the "zero mean" error that really reminds me of one of the Zeno’s paradoxes, as the error will never reach this zero goal.

In a nutshell, surprise is good, but the robot has to do what you want it to do. It needs a marking line between "obeying the orders" and "improvising". Where this line lays is strongly dependent on the application, and I think it will the subject of greater research when in the future robots will be really smart.

These are the questions that are mainly driving my research interests now. As it is written in my short bio, I am desperately trying to get the robots do something smart. And I believe that a way to obtain this is to relax the "zero error" requirements, and let ourself (the roboticists) be surprised by our own piece of code/hardware. While, obviously, being sure that the robot behaves.

I will conclude my first post with a quote from a colleague/friend of mine, who spent a long time discussing with me about these ideas, and who decided to write the introduction to a paper of mine:

Robots are tedious and boring. They are designed for specific tasks, which, after many hours of programming, swearing and beating our heads against the keyboard, they carry out autonomously. Nothing out of the ordinary can be expected from the pre-programmed robot as all that goes on is an almost mechanical following of program instructions, with any deviation from the expected behaviour considered as an error. As roboticists we aim for truly reliable, predicable robots that are free of unexpected behaviours — we don’t want our robotic car to unexpectedly drive us off the cliff or our vacuum cleaning robot to attack the hamster. However, this is mindnumbingly boring…

He never had a chance to finish this thought. And if you want, I will give you proper credits for this wonderful (yet unpublishable) remark.

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Posted by on June 13, 2010 in Discussion, Ideas, Research

 

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