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?”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Societal Implications of Advanced Manufacturing

What distinguishes humans from other living creatures is their ability to (1) grow food for providing nourishment, (2) alter the surrounding environment (e.g., construct buildings, bridges, roads etc.) to facilitate modern living, and (3) manufacture artifacts to improve the quality of life. 

The importance of being self-reliant on food production is well understood by every nation. For example, the US produces a large portion of food items consumed by its population. Construction by its very nature takes place in the communities that are going to benefit from it. Manufacturing on the other hand has seen large geographical shifts due to economic considerations. This has major societal implications.   

As countries around the world experience high unemployment rates and large trade deficits, there appears to be a vibrant debate about the role of manufacturing in the society. Developed nations are primarily interested in high value manufacturing that creates high paying jobs and export opportunities for its manufacturers. This type of manufacturing is often called Advanced Manufacturing. A number of enabling technologies are having a profound effect on the manufacturing sector. This post explores the value of Advanced Manufacturing in the societal context.

I have categorized advanced manufacturing into four main areas and tried to list challenges, enabling technologies, goals,  and societal implications for them. 

1. Smart Manufacturing
  • Challenges: Manufacturing consumes significant resources and negatively impacts the environment. To compete favorably, companies need to offer high quality products of increasing complexity at a faster pace with lower prices.  
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing These Challenges: Internet of Things, Low Cost Sensors, Ubiquitous Computing, Machine Learning, and Cloud Computing
  • Goal: Improve manufacturing efficiency and productivity
  • Societal Implications:  Reduce environmental impact of manufacturing, create high paying jobs in manufacturing, and reduce cost 
2. Automation
  • Challenge: Manufacturing involves significant manual labor and hence not competitive in high wage regions  
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: Digital Models, Virtual Prototyping Software, Human-Friendly Robots, Human Robot Collaboration, and Automated Material Handling Systems  
  • Goal: Reduce human labor in manufacturing 
  • Societal Implications: Make domestic production viable, increase exports, and enhance national security by reducing reliance on imported goods
3. Advanced Materials 
  • Challenge: Existing materials limit the design options
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: Advances in Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, and Composites  
  • Goal: Develop new materials to overcome functional limitations of existing materials
  • Societal Implications: Enable invention and creation of new products    
4. Process Innovations
  • Challenge: Existing processes impose constraints on what can be made
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: 3D Printing, Additive Manufacturing, In-Mold Assembly, Microfabrication, and Nanofabrication
  • Goal: Develop new processes to overcome limitations of existing processes
  • Societal Implications: Democratize manufacturing, empower innovators, reduce barriers to create new businesses based on new products  
I would like to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What are the Implications of the Rise of Chinese Industrial Robotics Industry?

A large fraction of the world’s manufacturing takes place in China. Historically, the manufacturing moved to China because of low wages and lenient environmental regulations. However, things are beginning to change in China. Wages are increasingly rising. Due to the one-child policy, age demographics are rapidly shifting. The ratio of the available labor force to the total population is expected to decrease. The percentage of people who are above 60 is expected to increase from 15 percent to 25 percent over the next fifteen years. These factors are expected to create a shortage of labor in the future.      

China has emerged as a dominant player in the low-cost manufacturing sector. China would like to become a significant player in the advanced manufacturing sector to maintain growth and offer high-value products. Advanced manufacturing requires precision, consistency, and high quality. Automation and robotics are considered an important ingredient to become a serious player in the advanced manufacturing arena.

China is aggressively pushing deployment of robots as a solution to the anticipated shortage of labor and its desire to move into the high-value added advanced manufacturing sector. China deployed almost 38,000 new industrial robots in 2013. Robot deployment in China has been growing at nearly 30 percent per year over the last few years. In 2013, approximately 168,000 industrial robots (excluding electronic packaging robots) were sold worldwide.  China bought more than 20 percent of the industrial robots sold worldwide. Clearly, China has emerged as a serious market for selling industrial robots.

Korea is currently the world leader in terms of the number robots deployed per worker basis.  It uses 396 robots per 10,000 workers. China currently only uses 23 robots per 10,000 workers. The same figures for Japan and Germany are 332 and 273.  China has a lot of catching up to do. There is no reason to believe that robot numbers in China will not approach 200 per 10,000 workers over the next few years. This should generate demand of approximately 400,000 robots per year in China alone. This is clearly great news for the industrial robotics companies.

China has been developing its own industrial robots. China’s domestic manufacturers sold nearly 10,000 robots in 2013. I believe that the Chinese manufacturers will ultimately utilize a large number of domestically produced robots. Hence, it is likely that Chinese domestic industrial robotics industry would have lion’s share of 400,000 robots sold annually in China. If they achieve even 75 percent of the market share in China, they will be bigger than US, European, Japanese, and Korean industrial robotics companies combined together.

Some people disagree with this assessment and use the following argument to defend their position. Even though a large volume of manufacturing takes place in China, the equipment used in the manufacturing is produced in other countries and imported to China.  Representative examples include optical fiber manufacturing equipment, IC manufacturing equipment, and CNC machines.

Some people cite China’s inability to create a strong domestic manufacturing equipment industry as a reason for why China is unlikely to emerge as a significant player in the industrial robotics industry. In my opinion, this comparison is flawed.

There are fundamental differences between industrial robots and other manufacturing equipment such as CNC machines. When a part is produced on a CNC machine, it carries the signature of the machine on which it was made. The accuracy and precision of the machine get reflected in the quality of the part produced. By examining the part, one can make inferences about the quality of the machine on which the part is made.  Hence, it often makes sense to buy high quality machines to add new capability and gain competitive advantage. In most situations, the robot just needs to be able to move the part from one place to another. Once the part leaves the robot’s hand, there is no residual impression of the robot hand on the part. You cannot examine the part and figure out which robot moved it. Hence, you just need to get a robot that will get the job done. There is no point in paying for a higher performance. I believe that there are many tasks where high performance is not needed and hence one can get away with simple robots. I don’t see any reason why Chinese manufacturers will not be able to create useful robots to serve market needs in simple pick-and-place tasks.                      

If Chinese robot manufacturers have a sufficient large volume, they should be able to drive the cost of domestically produced robots significantly. If an Indian automotive company can sell a car for less than $3,000 (e.g., Tata Nano), Chinese manufacturers should certainly be able to sell a robot for less than $5,000. Doing this will require significant support from the Chinese government, but there is no fundamental reason why this cannot be done.

Here are some interesting questions related to the rise of Chinese industrial robot industry:

  • If the Chinese were to be successful in producing lost-cost robots, would they export them to the rest of the world? How will it impact the market share of the other leading industrial robotics companies? 
  • If the rest of the world had access to really cheap robots, would Chinese manufacturers have any inherent advantage? Would the rise of Chinese robotics industry deliver low-cost robots to help the rest of the world successfully compete with Chinese manufacturers?      
  • Many business leaders in the developed world believe that the cost advantages held by Chinese manufacturers can be neutralized by using automation and robots. This is with the assumption that everyone will have to pay the same price for their robots. What if the Chinese robot manufacturers simply decide not to export their robots? In this case, the Chinese will have access to $5,000 robots, the rest of the world will need to pay at least $25,000 (based on current pricing) to get their robots. The world won’t be flat in this case.                    
  • If Chinese manufacturers mainly focus on the advanced manufacturing, who would be the world’s manufacturer for low-cost mundane parts?      
Unfortunately, I don’t know the answers to the above questions. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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.