Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where Can We Use Biologically Inspired Robots?

Roboticists watch creatures in the natural world with a great deal of envy. The nature has endowed its creatures with a mesmerizing array of locomotion and manipulation abilities. Here is a representative list of remarkable capabilities on display every day in the natural world: a cheetah sprinting through an uneven terrain with tall grass, a falcon diving a great distance to catch a prey, an ant carrying a leaf that weighs five times its body weight, a monkey jumping from one tree to another while carrying a baby, and a lizard running on the water.
Robot designers try to take inspiration from the nature and try to create robots that attempt to match impressive locomotion and manipulation abilities found in the nature. Examples include robots that use legs to negotiate a rugged terrain, robots that fly by flapping their wings, robots that swim by undulating their bodies, and robots that crawl by extending and contracting their bodies.

Obviously designing and building biologically inspired robots is a lot of fun.  They offer a great excuse for grown men and women to build their own toys and play with them (and get paid while doing it!).  They can also serve as useful tools to discuss and teach science and mathematics. Learning about the conservation of momentum is much more captivating when watching YouTube videos of gazelles making sharp turns to escape hungry cheetahs. Biologically inspired robots have also helped many movies mint millions of dollars at the box office. 

Often people ask me what are the real (translation: non-fun) applications for biologically inspired robots. This post attempts to answer this question.    

The majority of biologically inspired robotics research is focused on creating robots that can go where traditional robots cannot go. These robots are expected to enable new capabilities in search, rescue, recovery, surveillance, reconnaissance, inspection, and exploration applications. Hopefully, these robots will help us in saving lives, enhancing safety and security, and learning about remote places in not so distant future. Taking inspiration from the nature is also helping us in creating robots that are much more energy efficient and robust.

Biological inspiration is also helping in the design of the next generation prostheses. Hopefully, these devices will be neurally-connected and feel much more natural than a conventional prosthesis.    

Where do we go from here? How can we expand the markets for the biologically inspired robots from the traditional applications described above? In this post, I want to exclusively focus on non-defense related applications. Here is a list of offbeat applications for biologically inspired robots.

  • Tiny Swimmers Inspired by Bacteria:  Submicron swimming robots inspired from bacteria can have many potential applications in medical diagnostic and therapeutic applications.    

  • Pets/Companions: Robot pets might be a good option for people who are unable to take care of the real pets or people who are allergic to them.  For example, robot pets might provide companionship for elderly individuals who want to live alone. They might also be useful as guide-dogs for people with visual impairments.  

  • Actors in Biology Experiments: Understanding how animals behave with each other requires an ability to perform controlled experiments.  Controlling the animal behavior during experiments is very hard. Having realistic robots that can fool animals will help in conducting experiments with a higher degree of control. For example, robots can be made to look and sound like birds to help us understand the mating habits and rituals of birds.

  • Animal Surrogates for Treating Phobias: Many people suffer from acute phobias involving animals. One way to treat the phobia is by exposing people with phobia to real animals in a controlled way. Accomplishing this is very challenging. Robots that can serve as animal surrogates can help in making further advances this area. 

  • Bouncers for Preventing Bird Trespassing: Birds can significantly reduce yields on farms by eating seeds and damaging plants. Birds can also pose threats to airplanes as they take off and land on airports. Farmers and airport administrators can use robots that look like large predatory birds and hence scare smaller birds.   

  • Avatars for Humans: I am sure that there have been cases when you wished that you had a clone who can make an appearance on your behalf. Robotic avatar might be a way to represent yourself without getting tangled in the ethical dilemma associated with human cloning. A chef might want to have multiple robotic avatars to serve a large number of customers without compromising his/her signature style. Advances in self-driving cars will enable your robotic avatar to go where you are needed without you needing to leave the comfort of your home. You can basically deliver your expertise via your robotic avatar. 

  • Farmhands: Robot swarms can help in picking ripe fruits and berries with minimal damage to the tree/plant.  They can also inspect difficult to reach portions of plants and crops for disease and infection.   

  • Training Partners for Athletes: Athletes require intensive training. Finding good training partners for elite athletes is very hard. Hopefully, robots can play this role.    
Many advances will be needed in robotics related areas before any of the above mentioned applications becomes a reality, but it is not too early to start thinking about them.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on new markets and applications for biologically inspired robots.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Would you like to achieve immortality by living as a robot?

Humans have always been fascinated with the notion of immortality. Many ancient mythologies have included memorable characters who went to incredible lengths to achieve immortality. Technological advances are putting a new spin on the concept of immortality.  The concept of digital immortality has been around for many years. Recently, a few people at MIT created a company around this concept.  

The premise behind digital immortality is relatively simple. Every day you create a large amount of digital footprints (unless you live off-the-grid in some remote jungle). Your digital footprints can be mined to learn how you “think and act”. Here are some examples of what the cyberspace knows about you:

  • Your likes and dislikes. Your Facebook and Twitter account can be mined to learn this. Your on-line (and credit card) purchases can also be used to learn what you like.
  • What you are likely to know. Based on books, forums, newsfeed, and blogs that you read, the cyberspace can build a model of what you know. Your participation in MOOCs can also be helpful in collecting this information.
  • Your value system. Your writings including tweets, blog posts, emails, comments, and product reviews can be analyzed to figure out what you value and your opinions. 
  • Who do you know and how you interact with them. Your professional and personal social network can be mined to figure this out.
  • Where have you been. Your car, your cell phone service provider, airlines, and hotels know where you have been.
If you are willing to cooperate, all of this information can be mined to create a virtual avatar of you. This virtual avatar can be used to make predictions about what you like and dislike. This avatar can also tweet using your style and post comments on Facebook and blog posts. It can even offer advice to your friends and family over the email/chat. For example, if your friend is going to Tokyo, your digital avatar can give him advice on where to find good vegetarian food (assuming that you know where to get good vegetarian food in Tokyo). If the digital avatar technology becomes really good, your avatar can live in the cyberspace when your body is unable to nourish your brain.

I am not yet sure what will be the right business model behind offering digital immortality. Advertisers would not care about the “opinions” and “eye balls” of deceased people, so the companies offering digital immortality are unlikely to make money from advertisers. Perhaps you will need to set a trust fund to pay for your digital immortality. Perhaps companies will charge you a large sum of money upfront while you are still alive. I am not sure what will happen if the company hosting your digital avatar ceases to exist. If we go down this path, we will also need to develop technology to create immortal companies!

If a good digital avatar can be created for a deceased person, then it should be possible to give a body to that digital avatar by putting it in a robot. Advances in humanoids should soon be able create robots that have locomotion capabilities of humans. Your body can be scanned and the robot can be made to look like you. Perhaps 3D digital model of you can be “airbrushed” to give you features that the mother nature forgot to give you.  I believe that technologically speaking, it should be possible to offer you an opportunity to live as a robot in less than fifty years.

I am not sure if living as a robot is a good idea for most us. Here are my concerns:
  • A robot consumes significant amount of energy and it will need to be repaired every once in a while. So it will take real resources to offer robotic immortality to deceased people. More than sixty million people die every year, so if this idea were to become popular, lots of resources will be tied up in serving robotic avatars of deceased people. I am not sure what the society will get in return.   
  • What happens if your trust fund that is paying for your robotic avatar does not do well in the next recession? Will the robotic avatar of you need to be “put to rest” in that case? Clearly, you won’t be immortal after a bad recession!
  • What if a hacker corrupts the algorithm driving your digital brain and you start acting in an erratic manner that makes your robotic avatar look like a lunatic? Can you become “digitally insane”?
  • What happens to your internal value system over time as the society evolves and its value system changes? Will your archaic value system make you look like an out-of-touch idiot in hundred years? Please keep in mind that even the digital models will “age” with time.
I think immortality is a mirage. We should simply embrace the fact that nothing is immortal (even the sun is supposed to die in few billion years from now) and instead focus on living our lives to the fullest extent while we are alive. We should all be remembered by our deeds. If the posterity sees a real value in creating a robotic avatar of a deceased person, they will do so and it will remain “alive” as long as it offers a useful value to the society.      
Technologically speaking, it will be possible to live as a robot in fifty years from now. However, it will only be worth living as a robot if the society gains something positive from our robotic avatars.    

Monday, December 30, 2013

Can Robots Play a Role in Improving Lives of Autistic Individuals?

Lately I am noticing a lot of interest from the robotics community in developing robots to help autistic individuals.  Some of these efforts are based on technology push, i.e., people have developed a cool new robot and they would like to see if autistic individuals can benefit from using it.  Some efforts are genuinely targeted at understanding the needs of the autistic individuals and developing solutions to help them.

This post shares my thoughts on this topic based on our family’s experiences in raising an autistic daughter. Let me begin by setting the context.  Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder that affects the brain development.  Representative symptoms associated with autism include difficulty with social interaction, limited verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Individuals with autism face many challenges in their daily lives.

The intensity of symptoms associated with autism can vary from mild to very severe and there is a considerable variation in symptoms.  Experts use the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to refer to autism and related disorders.  It is often said that no two autistic individuals are alike. According to the recent statistics, one out of every eighty eight children born in the U.S. is diagnosed with ASD.  Unfortunately, there is no known medical cure for autism, making it a pressing social problem.

Individuals with ASD struggle every day to live in the world designed for neuro-typical individuals.  Most autistic individuals are hyper sensitive and often experience sensory overloads. Sounds, smells, and sights that might appear normal to most people often can overpower the senses of autistic individuals. They use stimulatory repetitive behaviors to compensate for the sensory overload.  Many autistic individuals struggle with language. They have a basic understanding of the vocabulary and grammar, but advanced language concepts are often foreign to them. Many autistic individuals are good in picking up body language cues from their peers and can sense the disapproval and rejection of their behaviors by their neuro-typical peers. However, most autistic individuals are helpless in controlling their behaviors; their own bodies and brains betray them every day.

Here is how the world might appear to an autistic teen as he/she goes through the daily life. Imagine that you are in the 10th grade science class.  The heating system in the class is making a really loud annoying thumping noise. This is crippling your ability to think. You try to cover your ears and start humming to drown that excruciating sound.  Your science teacher is delivering the science lecture in a “foreign language”. You understand the basics, but you are unable to follow the advanced vocabulary being used in the class. You are extremely frustrated and the stress is making it impossible for you to sit in your seat, so you are constantly fidgeting. You are noticing disapproving looks from your peers who find you weird and annoying. You are feeling humiliated and unwelcome in the class. You would like to fit in, but you are unable to control movements of your own body. The teacher has just announced that the next class will have a quiz. Quizzes make you really anxious and now you can feel a knot forming in your stomach.  Nausea has kicked in and the simple task of walking from Science classroom to English classroom appears to be a Herculean task.    

Unfortunately,  parents are often helpless and unable to eliminate the pain and suffering of their ASD children.  Providing care for autistic individuals can be emotionally and physically exhausting.   Most parents try very hard to improve lives of their children
. Unfortunately, they also worry non-stop as to what will happen to their ASD sons and daughters as they grow old and unable to care for them.  Unfortunately, there is no good answer.  This can be a tiring, frustrating, and heart-breaking experience.  But this unfortunate adversity in life also showcases the resiliency of the human spirit. You meet so many individuals who do not give up and continue to fight incredibility hard to put one more smile on the faces of their loved ones and make the world a fair place by demanding universal accessibility.
Given this background, the question is - can robots play a role in improving the lives of autistic individuals?  We will have to approach this question very carefully as learning to interact with humans is a key to the survival of autistic individuals in the neuro-typical world. Robots should not try to reduce the human involvement in the lives of autistic individuals. However, robots can be useful in one of the following situations:
  1. Increasing the human interaction will be detrimental to the intended outcome.
  2. The use of robots can significantly improve the quality of life for autistic individuals.
  3. Humans with the right expertise are not available to meet the needs of autistic individuals.
Here are my preliminary thoughts on potential applications of robots based on the above described situations.  
  • Overcoming Positive Interaction Deficit: The human brain is wired to seek positive social interaction. Many autistic individuals also crave positive social interaction. However, it is very hard for them to interact with neuro-typical individuals and this can be quite frustrating for them. The lack of adequate amount of positive social interaction can lead to severe depression. In my opinion, there is no good way for us to overcome positive interaction deficit faced by autistic individuals by increasing the human interaction.  Human interaction is extremely important, but simply increasing the amount of human interaction does not mean that autistic individuals perceive this increase in a positive light. In fact, many autistic individuals prefer to interact with animals instead of humans because animals are non-judgmental and reciprocate affection unconditionally.  However, many autistic individuals are unable to take care of pets. I believe that robots can be designed to entertain, stimulate positive interaction, and uplift the moods of autistic individuals. Such robots must be carefully designed to ensure that they fulfill the positive interaction deficit and not try to replace the need for interacting with humans.       
  • Improving Safety and Independence:  Many autistic individuals lack the basic notions of safety. This significantly worries caregivers and interferes with the freedom and personal space of autistic individuals. I believe that robotics-based technologies can be developed and adopted to enhance safety and independence of autistic individuals. These technologies can be used for safety monitoring (e.g., kitchen stove is switched off after use, medicine was taken on time), assist with household chores (e.g., cleaning), and navigation in complex surroundings (e.g., finding a store in a mall). There are many interesting technologies being developed for assisted living facilities that might find use in homes of autistic individuals. These technologies are not likely to look like a typical robot, but we should not care about the form.        
  • Improving Training and Education:  We have to find a way to create meaningful employment opportunities for autistic individuals. Not doing this will create a significant financial strain on the rest of the society. Many autistic individuals have natural talents such as computers, music, and mathematics. These talents should be nurtured and harnessed. Learning to function well in the society will require developing appropriate social interaction skills such as making eye contact, reacting appropriately to facial expressions and body language, and making small talk. Currently autistic individuals get very limited opportunities to practice and hone these skills. Robots can be designed to enable autistic individuals to practice these skills for extended periods of time. It is very difficult to put effective special education teachers in all the classrooms with autistic children. Telepresence robots might be able to expand that geographic reach of superstar special education teachers and contribute to the training of autistic individuals.                   
I believe robots can play a useful role in improving the lives of autistic individuals, but we should take extreme care to ensure that robots do not displace humans from the lives of ASD individuals. Ultimately, human contact and interaction will be vital for ASD individuals to function well in the society.          

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When can we buy robots to help us with household chores?

Recently Google has been in the news for its buying spree of robotics companies. Many people are excited about this and believe that this will greatly accelerate robotics technology development and hopefully make robots ubiquitous in our lives.

This post is mainly focused on robots for homes. In a simplistic sense, home robot market can be divided into the following three categories: (1) robots helping with dull and tedious household chores, (2) robots taking on new roles in homes (e.g., education, entertainment, companionship), and (3) robots in assisted living communities. Each of these markets has different underlying economics. In this post, I will focus on the first category.  Specifically, I am interested in the following question:  When can we buy robots to help us with household chores?

Before answering this question, let me quickly summarize the societal implications of home robots that can help with household chores:
  • Home robots might save many marriages by reducing fights over household chores. I am sure that divorce lawyers will hate home robots!
  • Teens will have love-hate relationship with robots. Parents won’t need to nag teens for doing chores. But teens won’t be able to make money by doing chores. Cash-deprived teens will need to cut down on money they spend on music and movies. This might be bad for certain pop stars. So watch out Justin Bieber, home robots won’t be good for your album sales.
  • Home robots will dethrone pet animals from being the stars of viral YouTube videos. They might even spawn new reality shows on TV to depict new relationship dynamics at homes as new home robots join the family.  
  • Call centers with human workers will be needed to bail out robots in distress. Hopefully, this will create new jobs for humans. Perhaps auto clubs like AAA can start new robot clubs to assist robot owners.
  • People won’t have any sense of privacy inside their homes. Robots will be able to monitor your every move, so be careful of what you do at home. I am sure NSA folks will be very happy with the advent of home robots. They will finally have the ability to know what time you take showers. They already know everything else!   
  • Occasionally, home robots will be involved in accidents. I can already see insurance companies salivating at this new opportunity and design new products. Hopefully, your robot can answer the phone when telemarketers from insurance company call you to sell new robot insurance policies.    
Here is a partial list of chores performed inside homes that can benefit from robot assistants:
  • Help with laundry 
  • Load and unload dishwashers 
  • Do preparatory work for cooking meals (e.g., chopping vegetables)
  • Clean kitchen
  • Clean toilets and bathtubs
  • Pick up objects (e.g., toys, newspaper, clothes, sneakers)  from the floor and move them to the right location 
  • Unload groceries from the car parked in garage
  • Assemble furniture
  • Help with moving heavy objects
  • Answer phone when telemarketers call at the dinner time
The above list does not include tasks for which the robot will have to venture outside the home. For example, I did not include lawn maintenance and snow cleaning tasks. A robot working outside the home will need to be able to deal with a wide variety of weather conditions and safety issues. This is a lot harder problem to solve.

I also on-purpose did not include pet sitting and baby sitting in the above list. Some people believe that robots should be able to do these. I think that this will be a good idea for TV shows, but a terrible idea in real-life.      

A home robot will require significant in-home installation, regular monitoring, and servicing to keep it operational. You may need to robot-proof your home to make sure that the robot does not damage your home and your home does not damage your robot.

I think we should look at a leasing or a renting model instead of a buying model. In this model, people will rent the robot from a company for a monthly fee.  The company will take care of the installation, monitoring, and service. If the robot is stuck, it should be able to contact a call center. Hopefully, someone in the call center should be able to teleoperate it to get out of the jam.

So how much people are willing to pay in monthly fees for robots at home? Based on my preliminary estimate, people will be willing to pay $200 to $500 per month for renting a robotic assistant for home.  I believe that people will be willing to pay $5 to $10 per hour of labor saved.  So if a robot can save 40 hours of tedious chores per month, then people will be willing to pay $200 to $400 per month for the robot.

Let us assume that a well-designed robot will have a service life of five years.  So the home robot market looks a lot like automobile market from pricing and service life points of view. 

In order for robots to be able to do forty hours’ worth of useful chores in homes, a lot of new technology will need to be developed. I believe that this technology can be sold at $200 per month if there were few million customers.  So here is the catch: unless there is a large market, the desired robots cannot be offered at the right price. However, unless the useful technology is available at the right price, the large market simply won’t exist.

Unfortunately, incremental development of home robot technology and its introduction in markets will be extremely slow. We will need to meet or exceed forty hours per month of useful robotic chores at home to create a significant home market and associated infrastructure. In my opinion, realizing a home robot is technologically feasible, but it will require billions of dollars of investment in technology development to ensure the high level of reliability and safety for home use. Unfortunately, venture capitalists don’t like these kinds of markets. My hope is that a cash-rich company such as Google, Microsoft, or Apple will go after developing this technology and create a new industry.  

Cell phones were invented for people to talk, but they have found new roles such as music players, web browsers, email clients, etc. The revenue growth in the cell phone market came because of the new roles played by cell phones.   I believe that the same thing is likely to happen for home robots as well. Initially people will be interested in getting robots at home to help with the household chores, but soon they will find new uses for these robots. I believe that robots might find an easier path to become fixtures in people’s home by adopting new roles such as tutors (e.g., music instructor, golf instructor), personal trainers, and entertainers.  

So, when can we buy robots to help us with household chores? If a cash-rich company like Google, Microsoft, or Apple goes after this technology, then we might have these robots before the end of this decade. Otherwise, we may need to wait for a while.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

International Robot Exhibition 2013: Interesting Trends and their Implications

I attended the International Robot Exhibition (iREX) in Tokyo in November 2013.  It was a mesmerizing display of robots – a gigantic hall filled with thousands of robots.  Robotics companies bring their latest and greatest robots to this exhibition.  As you walked through the exhibition hall, you saw a wide variety of amazing advances in the field of robotics.

I noticed several common trends in new product offerings from many different companies. The underlying technologies behind these products were proposed many years ago, but for a while these were serving niche markets. However, it appears that suddenly these technologies have become mainstream, and several different large established companies are featuring new products based on these ideas. So finally after many years of wait, these ideas have moved from labs to the mainstream robotics industry. 

Here is my pick of four noteworthy trends based on products offered by established companies in robotics space: 

Dual Arm Robots: Humans (and many other primates) have two arms, but industrial robots for the longest time have featured only single arms. The argument was that if a task needed two arms, you can buy two arms and mount them next to each other.  The mainstream robotics companies resisted the idea of connecting two arms to a body and selling it as an integrated package. However, it appears that thinking in the industrial robots community has changed over the last couple of years. Many companies at iREX were displaying new robots with two arms. In my opinion, the dual arm robot configuration will provide new advances in the dexterous manipulation area where two arms can be moved in a coordinated way to work with complex tools. Humans have a naturally tendency to utilize both of their hands when doing a task. Imagine cooking dinner with one hand tied behind your back! So dual arm configuration should it make it much easier for humans and robots to collaborate on complex tasks.    

ABB Dual Arm Robot
Nachi Dual Arm Robot
Eyes on the Hand: I saw several robots with cameras mounted very close to the hand. This configuration gives robots unobstructed close-up view of the parts being manipulated. This idea was proposed more than twenty years ago, but there were reservations in implementing it on the shop floor due to concerns about acquiring quality images and registering the images with a fast moving camera. I am happy to see that these challenges have been overcome and this configuration is featured on many robots. This configuration will enable new advances in visual servoing and enhance the accuracy of the fine manipulation of objects previously unseen by the robot. It is interesting to note that in the first trend reported above, companies created robots that embraced the anthropomorphic configuration. However, this trend moved robots away from anthropomorphic configuration by placing eyes on the hand. Cameras are inexpensive, so robots can afford to have eyes on the limbs. I am sure that many humans have wished that they had a pair of extra eyes.

Motoman Robot with Camera on Hand
Wearable Robots: There were many different kinds of robots on display that people can wear to enhance their capabilities, ranging from walking assist devices to exoskeletons. Some of these robots are targeting the physical therapy and rehabilitation market to help people recover from injuries or loss of motor functions due to medical complications (e.g., stroke). Some robots are targeting the assistive technology market to help people cope with diminished abilities due to aging or other medical conditions. It appears that the robotics industry has combined high efficiency actuators, lightweight structural materials, and new battery technologies to finally create useful products. Wearable robots are expected to positively impact the quality of life as the average human lifespan continues to increase due to the advances in medicine. They also provide new ways to carry out physical therapy and rehabilitation. I believe that they will eventually enter the sports market to help with athlete training. There is plenty of room in the amateur market too. It will be great to have a wearable robot that can teach you how to swing your golf club.

Honda Walking Assist Device
High Speed Pick and Place Robots Based on Parallel Kinematics:  Parallel kinematics based robots hold significant promise because the actuators can be placed near the base of the robot, significantly reducing the inertia of the moving links and enabling high speed operation. I was happy to see that every major company was featuring high speed pick and place robots based on parallel kinematics. Companies were reporting impressive workspace sizes, high repeatability, and large payload capacity in robots based on parallel kinematics. These robots are bringing speeds comparable to the hardware based fixed automation to programmable automation.               
ABB Flex Picker
Kawasaki Delta Robot