Five weekend reads in robotics, AI, driverless cars and the economy

  1. The Phenomenology of Self-Driving Cars — why I imagine driverless cars are going to hit a much bigger obstacle than most. (Next New Deal – The Roosevelt Institute, H/T @RobertWent)
  2. Robots that understand — DeepMind, the UK artificial intelligence group purchased by Google earlier this year, has revealed plans to create a broad alliance with the University of Oxford after acquiring two companies spun out of computer science projects at the elite academic institution. According to the Financial Times one of those companies: “is developing systems capable of the visual recognition of objects in the real word. This means, for example, giving robots three-dimensional awareness that can allow them to understand how a cup sits on a table.”
  3. CyPhy Works’ New Drone Fits in Your Pocket, Flies for Two Hours. Anybody who’s ever flown a rotary wing drone will look at the stats of CyPhy Works’ new Pocket Flyer drone and be amazed. It fits in your pocket and weights a mere 80 grams. It’ll fly continuously for two hours or more, sending back high quality HD video the entire time. What’s the catch? There isn’t one, except for the clever thing that grants all of CyPhy’s UAVs their special powers: a microfilament tether that unspools the drone and keeps it constantly connected to communications and power. (I’m a huge admirer of CyPhyWorks)
  4. The first example of a robot automating surgical tasks involving soft tissue. “There are no bad robots, there are just bad surgeons.” New Research Center Aims to Develop Second Generation of Surgical Robots.
  5. Robot project envisions factories where more people want to work. Rather than taking jobs, robots will one day soon join people on the factory floor, as co-workers and collaborators. That’s the vision of a EUR 6.5 million project led by Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. (

Japan’s government holds first “robotics revolution council” meeting

The Japanese government has held the first meeting of a new panel focused on its goal of a “robotics revolution,” a key item in the government’s economic growth strategy adopted in June.

The robot revolution panel is tasked with promoting measures to increase the use of robots and related technologies in various fields, extending out of the manufacturing sector and into hotel, distribution, medical and elderly nursing-care services. The appropriate use of robots will be a key to solving these problems, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who instigated the robot panel.

Despite Japan being a leader in the field of industrial robots, companies still rely heavily on human labor, making it difficult to secure enough workers and blocking efforts to improve productivity. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed ‘the robot revolution council:’

“To work out a strategy for using robots as the key means to solve labor shortages amid the declining birthrate and aging population, low productivity of the services sector and other challenges plaguing Japan and for developing the robot industry into a growth sector to explore global markets.

Adding his hope that the government will seek to make Japan a showcase for robots in service for various areas ahead of other countries by 2020.

The government said Japan will double its robot-related market to ¥1.2 trillion (US$11.3 billion) by 2020 in the manufacturing sector and achieve a 20-fold jump in the non manufacturing sector, also to ¥1.2 trillion (US$11.3 billion).

A government paper lays out the factors behind the robot revolution with respect to manufacturing, stating:

The Government will seek to improve (factory) productivity through the utilization of robot technology, thereby improving the profitability of companies and helping to raise wages.

The panel, chaired by Mitsubishi Electric Corp. consultant Tamotsu Nomakuchi, will work out a five-year plan to be presented by the end of 2014, with details on how they will achieve the numerical targets.

The robot council will also discuss the legal regulations needed to promote the use of robots and related technologies.

GoCart Robot delivers food in elderly and health care facilities

gocart_brochure_backRobotics is readily recognized as a technology of potentially key importance in helping the growing elderly population with their needs. In the US alone 8.5 million seniors require some form of assistive care; growing to 21 million over the next 20 years. 91% of nursing homes are understaffed. And there are at least 65.7 million family caregivers (31% of U.S. households); however, the number of potential family caregivers for each person is decreasing.

To solve some of the understaffed problem South Korea-based Yujin Robot is carrying out trials of its GoCart meal-transport robot designed to operate in all elderly and health care facilities. The first field test is scheduled for 8 October 2014 at a retirement community in the northeastern US with another test scheduled at a facility in southern Sweden.

Yujin, who have developed GoCart Robot in partnership with ScanBox Thermo Products AB, a manufacturer of high-end food transport systems, claim that “GoCart has unprecedented flexibility and ease of use. It maps the environment and uses an array of sensors and cameras to autonomously carry out its deliveries without interfering with people or other objects.”

As its name suggests, GoCart is a robot cart that can be programmed to deliver food within elder care and health facilities, freeing up much needed time of care assistants and other staff so that they can focus more on emotional care and other human skills to aid people within their facilities.

When the automobile was first introduced it was widely considered to be a niche means of transport and something that would not replace the horse and buggy. Indeed many complained the cars were scaring the horses. Now people compare the transition from horse to car and the industrial revolution to what is happening with the robot and automation economy today: a time of disruption and upheaval. Ann Norton Greene, a U.S. historian at the University of Pennsylvania, whose remarkable book, Horses At Work, offers a fascinating insight into the transition from horse to car, writes: “You can’t change the conditions of a system without damaging a lot of people, business, practices and habits that go with it.”

The disruption did indeed cause some damage – new technology and economic revolutions always will – but just like the transition from horse to car and the rise of the automobile, many existing jobs were improved and enhanced and many new jobs were created.

The same is happening with robots and automation. Whilst jobs are likely to be displaced, many new jobs are and will continue to be created; additionally, existing jobs are being enhanced and shortfalls in staff filled by humans and machines working together.

So far the signs are encouraging that GoCart will enable staff to focus on more humane care and let the robots do the more mundane tasks.

Robb Cheek, Yujin Robot’s business developer says: “Private and public elderly care facilities worldwide already face labour shortages and skyrocketing costs; and fiscally constrained governments’ must provide high-quality care for their seniors while controlling costs.”

Placing robots in human environments inevitably raises important issues of safety, ethics, and economics – We will certainly be watching the trials with interest!

Yujin Robot’s have released the following video explaining the GoCart Robot:

5 Weekend reads in robotics, drones and their economic impact

BCG Rise of Robotics

Inside Google’s Secret Drone-Delivery Program

This may sound crazy. This may be crazy. But Google is getting serious about sending packages flying through the air on tiny drones. And this is how that happened.

The Rise of Robotics (Boston Consulting Group)

Spending on robots worldwide is expected to jump from just over $15 billion in 2010 to about $67 billion by 2025.

Artificial Intelligent System Creates Descriptive Sentences Directly From Videos

Summarizing what is going on in a video is another task that may soon be done automatically thanks to work done through the Video In Sentences Out study. Using artificial intelligence deep learning methodology, a team has already been able to achieve accurate results in almost half of the videos the system has examined.

Unmanned Cargo Aircraft

The American Federal Aviation Administration predicts that in forty years’ time, some 40% of air cargo will be transported by unmanned aircraft.

Artificial intelligence must be possible. What’s holding us up?

The field of ‘artificial general intelligence’ or AGI — has made no progress whatever during the entire six decades of its existence. Despite this long record of failure, AGI must be possible.

Robots will augment jobs not take them – “The future ain’t what it used to be”

Autor paper

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the planet is abuzz with humans designing, organizing, manufacturing, servicing, transporting, communicating, trading, buying, and selling

Think of all the economic activity around you on a day-to-day basis, things that may seem commonplace but nevertheless require a great deal of coordination and ‘work.’ Ms. Rifkin who owns the local flower shop gets her delivery of tulips, Mr. Friedman’s insurance claim for his colonoscopy is processed, petrol stations have their pumps replenished over night so the millions of drivers on our roads can refuel on their way to or from the hundreds of thousands of different office locations, retail stores, factories and warehouses where they complete a myriad of professions. Look outside your window and you will have an idea of just how the global economy is a marvel of complexity, people talking on mobile phones, wearing clothes, shoes and make-up made on the other side of the world.

Now think about how many of the world’s professions have been or could be replaced by automation or robotics. It is highly probable that we will “see robots doing the jobs of humans in manufacturing plants (it is already the case), in grocery stores, in pharmacies, driving cars and making deliveries.”

But it is also highly probable that much of the work robots will do… will actually augment human labor not displace it. MIT professor of economics, David Autor believes the media vastly oversells the degree to which technology will displace highly skilled workers. He believes changing technology will instead complement these workers’ skills and help them to become more productive. In a new paper that accompanied Autor’s speech at Jackson Hole last Friday he actually reflects: “on how recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics should shape our thinking about the likely trajectory of occupational change and employment growth.” (RobotEnomics emphasis added).

Autor considers the oft quoted meme that the “robot overlords” will soon take our jobs, and asks:

But where are these robot overlords? And if they are not here already — and all outward appearances suggest that they are not — should we expect their imminent arrival?

The main thesis of the report is that whilst automation and robotics can do the work of routine tasks it is far more difficult for robots to complete non-routine tasks:

Executing non-­routine tasks is a central obstacle in computer-based automation.

Referring to Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva robotics Autor refers to the fact that Amazon still needs thousands of human’s in their warehouses:

These warehouses employ legions of dexterous, athletic “pickers,” who run and climb through shelves of typically non-­‐‑air conditioned warehouses to locate, collect, box, label and ship goods to purchasers. There is at present no technologically viable or cost-­‐‑effective robotic facsimile for these human pickers.

The job’s steep requirements for flexibility, object recognition, physical dexterity, and fine motor coordination are too formidable (for robots or automation).

But large components of warehousing can be automated as Amazon’s Kiva systems shows. However Autor emphasizes humans and robots working together in these warehouses:

Human flexibility is still required in the Kiva operated warehouse: only workers handle merchandise; robots only move shelves.

The report highlights the fact that machines need clear goals or instructions, whereas humans can operate with flexibility and judgment:

Humans naturally tackle tasks in a manner that draws on their inherent flexibility, problem solving capability, and judgment. Machines currently lack many of these capabilities, but they possess other facilities in abundance: strength, speed, accuracy, low cost, and unwavering fealty to directions.

The author indicates that even with advances in machine learning his: “general observation is that the tools (automation, soft A.I.) are inconsistent.”

Whilst acknowledging that there could be breakthroughs in technology (I think the author should have looked closer at Google’s DeepMind), the principal conclusion from the report is “that the challenges to computerizing numerous everyday tasks — from the sublime to the mundane — remain substantial,” and therefore robots will not be taking millions of jobs any time soon.

Outlining jobs where wages have stagnated and also those that the report author believes cannot be done by robots he concludes with the belief that robots and humans will collaborate and complement each other in the workplace (see also Human-computer symbiosis, not Artificial Intelligence, will spur new jobs):

There is a long history of leading thinkers overestimating the potential of new technologies to substitute for human labor and underestimating their potential to complement it.

He calls on governments and institutions to increase investment in training and education that produces skills which are complemented rather than substituted by technology. A point echoed by the European Union Commission who state: “More than 20% of GDP would quite simply disappear from Europe without intensive use of advanced robotics.” And that intensive use of robotics requires people skilled in building and working with advanced technologies. As I’ve said before – it’s a good time to join the robotics sector…

H/T William Rineheart and Andre Montaud for alerting me to Autor’s paper.

Video: The future of robotics, as seen by roboticists

At Automatica 2014 in Munich this year, the ECHORD++ project asked roboticists like Vijay Kumar, Uwe Haass, Pere Homs, and Christian Schlegel one simple question: “What do you think is the future of robotics?” Find out just how bright they think the future of robotics will be in this video.

About Project ECHORD++

The aim of ECHORD++ is to strengthen knowledge transfer between scientific research and industry in robotics and to stimulate their cooperation. ECHORD++ is a joint project of Technische Universität München (project coordinator), Blue Ocean Robotics, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Commissariat à lÉnergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives, Scuola Superiore SantAnna and Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya.

(This post by Hallie Siegel originally appeared on Robobohub)

The world and its ageing workforce needs Robots


An OECD report: Policy challenges for the next 50 years indicates: “Over the coming decades labor forces will age substantially.” “Population ageing will result in a decline in the potential labor force… causing a negative labor supply.” They then ominously add:

“An ageing workforce and longer working-lives will mean a longer period where depreciation of skills and technological change risk making human capital obsolete.”

Another report by Moody’s quoted in the Financial Times states:

“The world will have 13 “super-aged” societies by 2020, up from just three today, according to a report that warns of ageing populations becoming a drag on global economic growth.

Most of the countries set to join the “super-aged” club by 2020 are in Europe and include the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia and Croatia. But by 2030 they will be joined by a more diverse group including Hong Kong, Korea, the US, the UK and New Zealand. In the meantime, more than 60 per cent of the countries rated by Moody’s will be “ageing” next year, where 7 per cent of the population is 65 or older.”

A report by CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, Roads to Recovery posits that by 2023 the ageing population will have a negative effect on the economy:

“Potential growth of employment first of all depends on population growth, in particular, the growth of the working-age population. Due to the ageing of the population, this growth has come to a halt.”

Robotics technology has significant potential to impact on the societal challenges concerned with the ageing society. An ageing population will see declining productivity. However as reported by Morgan Stanley in their publication; The Internet of Things is Now:

Widening use of robots may be a welcome solution to one of the consequences of global ageing. Over the next 30 years, the number of people aged 20-64 years will decline in countries such as China, Japan, Germany, and Russia. By increasing the use of technology, companies can optimize productivity, thus helping to offset some of the headwinds of lower labor supply and higher wage inflation that are likely to emerge over the next 20-40 years.

Robots provide a preventative benefit to counterbalance the ageing process. The UK Government recognized the importance of robots to an ageing society in their report, RAS 2020: robotics and autonomous systems:

In the future, we will increasingly use Robots and Autonomous Systems to enhance almost every aspect of our lives. They will be part of our response to national challenges: an ageing population, safer transport, efficient healthcare, productive manufacturing, and secure energy.

Human history has always been characterized by technological advances to help society. Roboticists recognize that robots need to offer gains in productivity and support to justify an investment. The ageing society provides a strong imperative to develop robotic systems.

With an ageing population it may be plausible to think instead of robots replacing jobs; robots will actually mitigate the expected economic strains caused by the demographic changes ahead.