Thursday, August 27, 2015

Six Recent Technological Trends in Robotics and their Implications

1. Commercial Investments: Recently the commercial sector has made significant investments in robotics. Google has bought several robotics companies. Amazon has bought Kiva Systems and morphed it into Amazon Robotics. Qualcomm has also made investments in robotics. Even venture capitalists are interested in funding robotics companies. Hopefully, these will lead to the adoption of robotics in new applications and accelerate the technology developments.

2. Emergence of New International Players: Traditionally robotics advances mostly came from Japan, the US, and a few European countries. The field is expanding and new international players are emerging. China is making significant investments in robotics. Chinese manufacturers are currently leading the world in terms of procurement of new industrial robots. They are also developing their own low-cost industrial robots. The largest commercial drone maker DJI is from China. South Korea leads the world in terms of robots deployed per 10,000 workers. Recently, South Koreans won the DARPA robotics challenge by beating teams from the US and Japan. The globalization of robotics is expected to create new opportunities and challenge the leadership of the traditional players.

3. Reduction in Hardware Costs: The cost of industrial robots and drones has been declining in the commercial sector. This is expected to enable deployment of robots and drones in new applications. The agricultural sector is being projected as a major new market for robots and drones.

4. Popularity of Drones in Civilian Sector: The use of drones in the civilian sector both domestically and internationally is expected to grow at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, these robots have major vulnerability from the cyber security perspective. Recent examples of hacking of cars illustrate the vulnerability of these vehicles to cyber-attacks. New cyber-security technologies are needed to deal with attacks that can commandeer vehicles and cause physical damage. A serious incident in this area can influence public opinion and cause a major setback for this emerging field.

5. Cloud Robotics: Robots can leverage clouds to do massive data processing and exchange information with other robots in real time. Clouds are freeing robots from computing constraints and giving robots “big enough brains” to deal with challenging situations. Advances in big data are also being embraced by the robotics community to deal with the massive data generated by sensor-rich robots.

6. Leveraging Social Media Data: Robots now have access to data on social media. They can mine data (e.g., images) on social media to gain new “perception” capabilities that can in turn expand their ability to “understand” the environment. Social media can also be used to crowd source demonstrations for helping robots acquire new skills.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Impact of Social Media on Entrepreneurship

Many people have observed that social media has the potential to fundamentally change entrepreneurship opportunities. It is beginning to play a key role in many aspects of creating a new business. Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube have emerged as tools to advertise new services and products. Clearly, this is beginning to have an impact on the marketing function. LinkedIn enables startup companies to recruit talent for their new businesses. Kick Starter allows entrepreneurs to raise funds to realize their new ideas. Moreover, new companies are able to buy manufacturing services and programming help on the Internet. Amazon can help a startup in selling a new product. In today’s connected world, theoretically one can be located in a significantly remote area and yet get a product manufactured, marketed, and sold without leaving home. 

Historically, few select places such as Silicon Valley have enjoyed the reputations of being the hotbed of entrepreneurship and the birthplace of many modern technological giants. These places have provided startup companies access to funding, talent, and infrastructure to get going. Has social media reduced the impact of geographical location on the startup creation? In this post, I examine this question from the entrepreneurship culture point of view.

I currently live in the Washington DC metropolitan area. People living in DC area know that chances of a startup succeeding are very small. Many people will tell you that nine out of ten startups fail, so most students graduating from college are not willing to join a startup and instead opt for a safer option. Most of them simply do not have any one in their immediate network who has become super rich working for a startup. This lack of role models discourages them from taking perceived risks.

I often visit the Silicon Valley area to attend meetings. The culture there is very different. People seem to breathe a different air. Even though the chances of any single startup succeeding wildly are not very high, people living there strongly believe that if you simply try enough times you are bound to succeed. Many graduating students from college know people who have become widely successful by taking the startup route. The existence of these role models encourages students to join a startup. They simply do not view startups as risky ventures. Instead, not joining a startup is considered a missed opportunity.

Here is a puzzle for you. Let us assume that you are playing a game in which odds are stacked against you. The probability of you losing the game is ninety percent. What is the probability is that you win the game at least once if you try ten times? Folks living in the Silicon Valley intuitively understand the answer to this puzzle. 

Social media has impacted the functionality needed to get a startup going. However, culture is a very important aspect of getting people to be engaged in startups. Ultimately, the existence of an entrepreneurship culture is what drives people to correctly assess risks associated with the startup companies and view them as opportunities not to be missed. Social media has not yet impacted the entrepreneurship culture in a significant way. Silicon Valley continues to rule the startup world because of its well-established entrepreneurship culture.

Social media certainly has the potential to impact the entrepreneurship culture in a significant way and help free it from geographical constraints. I am not sure how long it will take for this to happen.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Role of Advanced Manufacturing in Innovation

Here is my testimony for "Make it in America: What’s Next?" panel organized by Congressman Steny Hoyer

1. The ability to innovate will increasingly depend on the presence of a vibrant manufacturing ecosystem.

In today’s global economy, the ability to innovate is crucial to creating new business opportunities and maintaining a healthy economy. The presence of a local manufacturing ecosystem is needed to maintain the US leadership in innovation and creating new industries. Designers need to understand how the manufacturing processes work to realize innovative products that are affordable and compete well globally. This understanding is difficult to achieve if the designers unable to closely interact with manufacturing engineers and experience manufacturing first hand. In today’s fast-paced world, designers need rapid access to manufacturing processes to try many different concepts to select the winner. Often the understanding of innovations in manufacturing processes can also lead to innovations in products. A nation cannot simply hope to continue to be at the forefront of innovations without having a healthy manufacturing infrastructure. There are many nations that are aggressively competing with the US in the innovation arena. The US has done remarkably well in leading the world in providing ground-breaking innovations. Many of these innovations came from companies located in Maryland. But the past performance alone cannot ensure continued future success. The US should make every effort to ensure that it maintains a healthy manufacturing sector.

2. A healthy manufacturing sector provides well-paying jobs and is crucial to the national security.

In addition to enabling innovation, a healthy manufacturing sector is necessary to provide well-paying jobs and maintaining favorable employment numbers. High-value manufacturing also creates export opportunities and helps with the trade balance. A healthy manufacturing sector is also needed to ensure national security. We should never be in a position to import parts that are critical to national security. In today’s era of constant cyber threats, we do not want to become vulnerable by importing parts that might have intentionally placed malware or serious security loopholes. Not doing so will simply give an opportunity to our adversaries to neutralize our technological superiority.

3. Recent advances in manufacturing are creating new opportunities for the US in high-value manufacturing.

The field of manufacturing is currently undergoing major changes. 3D printing is expected to revolutionize manufacturing. It enables designers to realize complex designs rapidly. The cost of 3D printers is dropping dramatically. This means that people who did not have access to manufacturing until now can buy 3D printers and make things themselves. Recent advances in robotics are reducing the need for manual labor and hence making manufacturing economically viable in high-wage rate regions. The Internet of Things technology is expected to lead to smart manufacturing. Companies need to offer high quality products of increasing complexity at a faster pace with lower prices. This makes manufacturing very challenging. Smart manufacturing technologies are expected to significantly improve manufacturing efficiency and productivity. These technologies can also be used to reduce negative environmental impact of manufacturing. Recent advances in materials such as digital materials, multifunctional materials, metamaterials, and programmable materials are expected to enable a new generation of products. Almost all of these advances originated in the US. We should leverage these advanced manufacturing technologies to grow manufacturing industry in the US and Maryland.

4. Advanced manufacturing will require a workforce with strong STEM background.

Advanced manufacturing requires a different kind of workforce. Rather than relying on manual skills, people are expected to work with sophisticated machines. The nature of the products is also expected to change rapidly. This requires a very different kind of workforce. Training the workforce for the next generation manufacturing technologies will require a strong emphasis on STEM subjects and a new pedagogical approach. Schools, colleges, and universities will need new labs with access to advanced manufacturing technologies. A closer partnership with industry will also be needed to ensure that the workforce training programs match the skills required by the industry. The University of Maryland is developing new labs and courses in the Advanced Manufacturing area to support Maryland-based businesses.

5. Recent technological advances are expected to create new business opportunities.

New markets and industries will be created around several emerging areas such as unmanned systems, driverless cars, electric vehicles, next generation batteries, intelligent prosthetic devices, smart appliances, and personalized medicine. Many of these technologies were developed in the US. The US should strive to become the leading world manufacturer and exporter of products in these emerging areas. The state of Maryland should lead the nation by demonstrating how to leverage recent innovations to launch new manufacturing-based businesses.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Building Blocks of South Korea’s Success in DARPA Robotics Challenge

Congratulations to Team KAIST from South Korea for winning the DARPA Robotics Challenge! They accomplished this feat by beating several well-known teams from the US and Japan. Just few years ago it would have been hard to predict this outcome. The rate at which South Korea has made progress in the field of robotics is truly impressive.

South Koreans have been working diligently to emerge as a major player in the high technology and advanced manufacturing areas. Here are some of the factors that provided foundations for South Korea’s noteworthy achievement in the DARPA Robotics Challenge:
  • Pre-college students in South Korea consistently lead the world in terms of science and mathematics achievements. This factor is crucial in building a strong workforce in STEM-related areas and producing world-class robotics engineers.
  • South Korea has emerged as a leader in the advanced manufacturing area. This enables them to design and build high-performance robotics hardware with remarkable capabilities.
  • Becoming a world champion requires a culture of excellence, determination, hard work, and perseverance. South Korea’s performance in Summer Olympics 2012 gives an idea of prevalence of this culture in that country. They were in the second place in terms of per capita gold medals won in the London Olympic Games.
  • South Korea is currently one of the top nations in the world in terms of research and development expenditure as a percentage of GDP. The availability of research funding has enabled them to develop the capacity to innovate and realize new robotics technology.
  • South Korea is currently number one in the world in terms of industrial robot deployment per 10,000 workers. Many people find it surprising that they are well ahead of Japan and Germany on this metric.
In summary, becoming world-class in any technology endeavor requires talented people, funding, infrastructure, and culture. South Koreans seem to understand this quite well. They are investing in R&D. They have a culture that values STEM education and demands excellence. They have developed the manufacturing infrastructure to facilitate innovation. They have embraced robotics in a big way. Their success in the DARPA Robotics Challenge is simply a return on their long-term investments in science and technology.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How to Develop Autonomous Vehicles that Engender Trust from the General Public?

Humans have developed a complicated process for developing trust in other humans and systems operating under the direct control of humans. Obviously, these processes are far from perfect and sometimes we pay a heavy price for trusting someone whom we should not have trusted. In all developed societies, there exists a legal system to act as a deterrent for betraying trust of a fellow human being by another.

Autonomous vehicles (e.g., cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, boats) technology is maturing at a rapid pace. These systems will most likely operate without direct human supervision. Most complex autonomous systems will be controlled by millions of lines of software. Even programmers who wrote the code cannot tell how the system will behave in certain unusual situations.

In light of this challenge, many people are beginning to ask: what do we need to do to ensure that we can trust autonomous vehicles? Currently, this question is mainly being asked by engineers and efforts are being made to come up with solutions. These solutions are likely to be expressed in complex technical terms. This won’t help in convincing the general public to trust these vehicles.

We, engineers, are not very good at explaining technology-related issues to the general public. Some of you might think that this in an understatement of epic proportions! I agree. We are woeful in communicating with the general public! I will be bold and attempt to make an effort to articulate trust issues in easy-to-understand terms. This post explores how humans develop trust in complex new situations and attempts to break down trust into its constituent ingredients so that, hopefully, the general public can begin to participate in this discussion.

Let us begin with a simple thought experiment to better understand how we make decisions about the trust. Imagine that you have landed in a new country. You do not speak the local language. It is dark outside and the weather does not look good. This country is notorious for its poor roads. Your hotel is far away from the airport. Your flight was late and so you have missed the last bus from the airport to the city.

A person approaches you and offers you taxi service. You are communicating by gestures. You are really worried if this person is able to understand you. You certainly do not want to go to the wrong hotel in the middle of the night. Fortunately, you find a local teenager hanging around at the airport who knows English, so you use that teenager as an interpreter. Should you accept the taxi ride from this person?

Here is the first question that might cross your mind. Will this guy and his car safely take you to your hotel in a reasonable amount of time? This question in turn breaks down to the following three questions:

  • Is the driver competent? (I have been driven by taxi drivers who can induce a heart-attack by their driving style!) 
  • Is the vehicle reliable? (I have seen taxis that have copious amounts of duct tape holding cracked windshields. I have seen Mythbuster episodes that have demonstrated amazing qualities of duct tape, but I am not comfortable seeing duct tape on windshields.)
  • Is the vehicle safe? (There are taxis drivers out there with the motto – “seatbelts are for wimps”.)
If the country where you have just landed has an adequate driver licensing system and vehicle inspection program, then you should probably not worry too much about the above mentioned questions. However, you may want to thoroughly inspect the taxi yourself before getting into it.

The next question on your mind probably would be whether or not you will be overcharged for the ride. What can go wrong? The driver might take a long route and charge you unreasonable amount of fare. He might stop at a rest stop where he gets a free meal and you are forced to buy an expensive, lousy sandwich just to get privilege to use the restroom. Clearly this would not be fair.

There are regions in the world where kidnapping/robbery is a genuine concern. How would you know that this driver is not an imposter? Who knows, you might get in a serious trouble for riding in this taxi and end up in a dark hospital room with a kidney missing. Hopefully, verification of the authenticity of the driver is the next thing on your mind.

Unfortunately, you were unable to exchange dollars for the local currency. Please remember in this scenario, your flight was late, and so the foreign exchange counter was closed The driver says that he will accept your credit card if you let him make a copy of your passport to verify your identity. How do you know that your passport information will not be stored in some unsafe fashion? You should be concerned about protection of your private information in this transaction.

Hopefully, the country has a good legal system which will act a deterrent for the driver to rip you off in a blatant manner. Hopefully, you are aware of news related to this country, and if the kidnapping and/or robbery rate was high and posed a real risk, then you would have heard about it. Probably you talked to your friend who visited this country last year and ask for his impression. You would have probably used a combination of (1) first-hand examination, (2) existence of deterrent, (3) reputation, and (4) referral to make your decision.

If you decided to sit in that taxi that stormy night, you decided to trust that driver and his taxi. Here is how you arrived at that decision. You were convinced that you were able to successfully communicate with the driver (e.g., he understood your destination and payment method). Implicitly, you have estimated that the probability is very high that driver and taxi will exhibit acceptable level of (1) competency, (2) reliability, (3) safety, and (4) fairness. In addition, you have assessed that the probability is very low that the driver is an imposter and the probability of your private information falling into the hands of unsavory characters is also very low.

We can extract the following universal building blocks of trusts from the above described scenario that are applicable to autonomous vehicles:

  1. Unambiguous Communication: You are not going to trust a system if you cannot get it to comprehend your intentions and understand what it is trying to do. 
  2. Competency: You will only trust a system if it performs as expected (and hopefully as advertised). 
  3. Reliability: You are unlikely to trust a system if it is unreliable.
  4. Safety: You will not trust a system if an accident or malfunction poses a serious safety risks. 
  5. Fairness: You will not trust a system if it tries to take advantage of you.
  6. Authenticity: If you are worried that the system is a counterfeit, then you are not going to trust it.
  7. Protection of Privacy: If the system makes your private information vulnerable, then you should not trust it.
In addition to the above seven trust ingredients, if you are dealing with a system that includes a computer connected to the Internet, you need to worry about cyber-attacks. You should add the following item to your list of trust components:  
  • Vulnerability to Cyber Attacks: If the system can be easily hacked, then you should certainly be very concerned and think hard before trusting it. If a system is capable of movement and it goes haywire due to malware, it can cause a serious damage by banging into things.
We have looked at what attributes a system should have for us to trust it. The next question is how we implicitly or explicitly estimate these attributes. In other words, what is the process for building trust?

Let us consider another example. Your neighborhood is considering the acquisition of autonomous vehicles for picking up garbage and cleaning streets. You need to vote on the proposal. Your vote basically represents an expression of trust in the proposed autonomous vehicles. Here is what you might be thinking as you are getting ready to make that decision:

  • First Hand Experience: Your neighborhood ran one week long trial before the vote and you were able to see these vehicles in actions. 
  • Reputation: The system has been used at several cities for two years. Fortunately, no serious accidents were reported. All reviews have been positive. 
  • Referral: Your friend from a neighboring city is raving about it. She was initially worried that these vehicles might pose serious risks to pets and children who walk on the side streets. However, she changed her mind. These vehicles seem to “see” everything around them and react appropriately. 
  • Regulations: There are regulations in place that govern safety of these autonomous vehicles and ensure that these vehicles operate at safe speeds and follow all traffic rules. Vehicles have been tested extensively by a third party to conform to these regulations.
As you observed these vehicles during the trial phase, you probably paid attention to the following three characteristics:  
  • Repeatability and Consistency: Vehicles follow the same pattern every day. If vehicles do something very different every day, it will be difficult to know if they are operating as designed or malfunctioning. 
  • Predictability: Vehicles react to obstacles in predictable ways so that people around them can learn to anticipate their behaviors and react accordingly. 
  • Communicating Decision Making Rationale: Vehicles should be able to explain their decision making rationale so that people know why vehicle took a particular action.
A feasible way to develop trust in software components is to make them open source so that they can be audited by crowds. Hackers should be given financial incentives to find and report vulnerability. That way rather than using their genius for destructive purposes, hackers are being encouraged to contribute to the debugging cause.

There is a good chance that I missed few important ingredients of trust and processes for building them. We really need to start paying attention to trust issues during the vehicle development phase and start engaging and educating the general public. Otherwise, this wonderful technology is not likely to gain market acceptance.

I would like to hear your thoughts on “How to Develop Autonomous Vehicles that Engender Trust from the General Public?”