5 Weekend reads: AI, Robot babies and the Future of Selves

Robotenomics lab

Robot Babies

A machine might acquire skills as a human child does by starting with a few basic tasks and gradually constructing a more sophisticated competence—”bootstrapping,” in scientific parlance. In contrast to preprogramming a robot to perform a fixed set of actions, endowing a robot computer with the capacity to acquire skills gradually in response to the environment might produce smarter, more human robots. (Smithsonianmag)

Helping the blind (and robots) see using Artificial Intelligence 

“If you’re a blind person and need to navigate an airport, Aipoly can instruct you on exactly where to walk. Not only that, this has huge implications for robotics. A robot will be able to use the same algorithm to recognize where it is and navigate autonomously.” (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Plus see the video on YouTube)

Robotics and AI will change the way we work, but it won’t necessarily take away our work.

“Andrew Moore, the dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who previously worked in AI and robotics at Google, agrees. He says that he has seen no evidence that this technology is stealing jobs—and that, as time goes on, it will likely create an enormous number of jobs.” (Wired quoting Forrester research)

The US Air Force Wants You to Trust Robots–Should You?

A recently posted government contract pre-solicitation titled Trust in Autonomy for Human Machine Teaming gives a glimpse of what that future might look like.

“The Air Force has proposed human-machine teaming as a primary research thrust,” the posting reads. “Yet to achieve this ambitious vision we need research on how to harness the socio-emotional elements of interpersonal team/trust dynamics and inject them into human-robot teams.” The Air Force, which says this research is needed to develop “shared awareness and shared intent between the humans and machine,” estimates the contract will be for $7.5 million. (H/T Scientific American)

AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves

Dr. Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics and author of “Virtually Human: The Promise – and Peril – of Digital Immortality, as she speaks with New York magazine’s Lisa Miller about the ideas behind a career and a life of radical innovation in xenotransplantation, artificial intelligence, transgenderism, pharmaceutical development, space exploration, robotics – and the ways in which technology can help extend human life, and love, perhaps indefinitely. (YouTube – Also below)

Teaching robotics, how economists can learn from Machine Learning & other reads

RoubiniWhat Economists Can Learn from Machine Learning

Susan Athey of Stanford University and the NBER discusses the benefits to economics of using machine learning methodology “Machine Learning inspires us to be both systematic and pragmatic.” (The National Bureau of Economic Research)

The gains from technology must be channelled to a broader base of the population

In the years ahead, technological improvements in robotics and automation will boost productivity and efficiency, implying significant economic gains for companies. But, unless the proper policies to nurture job growth are put in place, it remains uncertain whether demand for labour will continue to grow as technology marches forward. (Nouriel Roubini on Economia)

Robot farmer

Agbotic is making an automatized mini-farm run by a robot. The 15,000-square-foot greenhouse’s robot isn’t modeled after a human in anyway.

Startup Agbotic has already designed automated lawn tractors and other projects. The company says the $350,000 robot greenhouses can let farmers easily grow organic vegetables. (Watertown Daily Times)

How to teach … robotics

Ahead of the new school teaching term The Guardian provides a snazzy ‘lesson’ on teaching robotics aimed at inspiring future engineers and computer scientists. (The Guardian)

Economic historian Nathan Rosenberg passed away

I was sad to learn about the passing of my former Professor, Nathan Rosenberg. Professor Rosenberg was one of the wisest economic historians on technological change and the impact of innovation. In addition to his widely read books and papers on economic history he also pioneered the research on uncertainty in innovation and technological change. His work focused on how technological innovation has shaped and been shaped by science, industry, and economics in the twentieth century. (RIP Professor Rosenberg)

Robots flying planes? Boeing projects a demand for nearly 1.2 million new pilots and technicians

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Commercial planes are on autopilot from almost gate to gate is: “up there among the most insulting and misleading characterization of how commercial airplanes are flown.” According to Patrick Smith who is an active airline pilot and author of the New York bestselling book Cockpit Confidential.

Smith also seeks to discredit headlines and comments such as Toronto’s The Globe and Mail which leads with: “Aviation is Fast Approaching the Post-Pilot Era.” An article which quotes David Learmount, a “veteran aviation expert,” who predicts that “pilots won’t be in cockpits in 15 years but in an airline’s operations room, rather like the U.S. Air Force pilots flying Global Hawks [military drones].” “What utter and shameless rubbish;” says Smith.

Debunking the oft-cited claim of planes that fly themselves he writes in the New York Times: “the notion of the automatic airplane that “flies itself” is perhaps the most stubborn myth in all of aviation.”

Seeking to clarify the use of autopilot technology, the role of the pilots and the challenges of pilotless commercial airlines on his personal blog (AskThePilot.com) Smith notes that:

Cockpit automation is merely a tool, and it needs to be told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and where. And though a pilot’s hands aren’t gripping the steering column for hours at a time, as it might have in the 1930s, they are manipulating, operating, and commanding the various systems and subsystems that carry you to your destination.

To back up some of Smith’s sentiment Boeing recently released it’s annual forecast: Pilot and Technician Outlook which looks at the long-term forecast of the demand for pilots and technicians and provides Boeing’s estimate of personnel needed to fly and maintain the tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners expected to be produced over the next 20 years. The factors in changing market forces affecting the industry.

The outlook states:

As global economies expand and airlines take delivery of tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners over the next 20 years, there will be unprecedented demand for people to pilot and maintain these airplanes. To meet this tremendous growth, the 2015 Boeing Pilot and Technical Outlook forecasts that between now and 2034, the aviation industry will need to supply more than one million new aviation personnel—558,000 commercial airline pilots and 609,000 maintenance technicians.

Boeing outlook

Whilst the future is always unclear, the immediate (10/20 years) future is a little less hazy and Boeing’s outlook certainly indicates robots will not replace pilots and technicians anytime soon.

Not wanting to sound like a technical Luddite, I would rather think of pilotless planes as something similar to the thoughts of the brilliant historian Robert Conquest who wrote about the “Dragons of Expectation.” Which summon up images of apocalyptic destruction through the beating of their wings and suggests the process by which ideas can produce visions of radical transformation that in turn may lead to manias and dogmas. Conquest showed that progress is never linear or without disruption and interruption.

As with driverless cars and pilotless planes, much depends on humans for legal clarifications and legislation approval and years and years of test data, and let’s not forget the human customers ‘willingness’ — 83 % of people who voted in a Debate.org poll said there was “not a chance in hell” they would board a pilotless plane. Taking into consideration many of these factors some industry ‘experts’ expect cargo airlines “ditching the crew completely by around 2035.” And many more years before the same will happen for passenger flights.

Based on current developments, technological as well as social and political, I think it is going to be several decades (2040 onwards?) before we will see pilotless commercial airlines with hundreds of passengers onboard.

In the meantime let’s dismiss some of the hype around robots taking jobs and instead welcome Boeing’s forecast of increased jobs for pilot’s and engineers and keep in mind Conquest’s thoughts of “clearing the dragons of expectation out of our mental skies.”

See also – National Geographic’s interview with Patrick Smith.

Like cholesterol, robots come in two varieties: the good and the bad

robot soldierRobotics may be getting a lot of headlines today – but how do the stories compare to the past. Here’s a list of 5 fascinating reads in robotics from 2008 – after all 2008 was the year of Wall-E and the release of Boston Dynamics first Big Dog video.

English village to be invaded in robot competition

The UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Grand Challenge is designed to boost development of teams of small robots able to scout out hidden dangers in hostile urban areas.

Over 10 days in August, 11 teams of robots will compete to locate and identify four different threats hidden around a mock East German village used for urban warfare training, at Copehill Down, Wiltshire.

The robots must find snipers, armed vehicles, armed foot soldiers, and improvised explosive devices hidden around the village, and relay a real-time picture of what is happening back to a command post. (New Scientist April 2008)

Check out those drones! As an aside I wonder if that mock East German village built for urban warfare training during the Cold War is still ‘active.’

Social tension between humans and robots

Mighty Atom was the size of a ten-year-old boy, more or less, but had a 100,000 horsepower atomic energy heart, an electronic brain, search light eyes, super-sensitive hearing, rockets in his legs, ray guns in his fingers, and a pair of machine guns in his posterior. He attended primary school, where he was often teased for being a robot… Since robots could not harm humans – that’s their nature – he had no choice but to put up with it. (The Valve November 2008)

Monkey’s Thoughts Propel Robot, a Step That May Help Humans

It was the first time that brain signals had been used to make a robot walk… “The robot, called CB for Computational Brain, has the same range of motion as a human. It can dance, squat, point and “feel” the ground with sensors embedded in its feet, and it will not fall over when shoved.” (The New York Times January 2008)

Your future with robots – Rise of the Robots

“By 2010 we will see mobile robots as big as people but with cognitive abilities similar in many respects to those of a lizard. The machines will be capable of carrying out simple chores, such as vacuuming, dusting, delivering packages and taking out the garbage. By 2040, I believe, we will finally achieve the original goal of robotics and a thematic mainstay of science fiction: a freely moving machine with the intellectual capabilities of a human being.” (Scientific American January 2008)

US war robots in Iraq ‘turned guns’ on human comrades

Rogue robots on the loose — Ground-crawling US war robots armed with machine guns, deployed to fight in Iraq (in 2007), reportedly turned on their fleshy masters. The rebellious machine warriors have been retired from combat pending upgrades. (The Register April 2008)

Finally, if you have not seen Alex Rivera’s 2008, social and political sci-fi movie, Sleep Dealer I recommend it. See the trailer here (or below) – “We build your skyscrapers and harvest your crops – let our robotics do your dirty work.”

Picture – The San Antonio Light, 16 October 1928, the headline reads: “Steel Soldiers May Do Mankind’s Fighting.”

Five mid-week reads in behavioural science, machine learning and robotics

Five mid-week reads in behavioural science, machine learning and robotics to stay up dated on the robot economy.

  1. Humans define the goals, technology implements the goals – A wide ranging interview with Stephen Wolfram on Artificial Intelligence and the future. “I think the issue is, as you look to the future, and you say, “Well, what will the future humans …?” where there’s been much more automation that’s been achieved than in today’s world—and we’ve already got plenty of automation, but vastly more will be achieved. And many professions which right now require endless human effort, those will be basically completely automated, and at some point, whatever humans choose to do, the machines will successfully do for them. And then the question is, so then what happens? What do people intrinsically want to do? What will be the evolution of human purposes, human goals?” (GigaOm)
  2. Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars – There are still people working at the factory, though. Three workers check and monitor each production line and there are other employees who monitor a computer control system. Previously, there were 650 employees at the factory. With the new robots, there’s now only 60. (TechRepublic)
  3. Sex with robots will be ‘the norm’ in 50 years – An expert on the psychology of sex has claimed that she expects having sex with robots to be socially acceptable by 2070 (The Independent)
  4. Cheaper Robots, Fewer Workers – A NY Times Bits video series, called Robotica, examining how robots are poised to change the way we do business and conduct our daily lives. (The New York Times)
  5. 10 lessons in Reinforcement Learning from Google’s DeepMind – A very good series of videos on Reinforcement Learning, by David Silver from Google’s DeepMind:

What are you reading?

Improving productivity with your Robot Assistant

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How can I help youOur current phase of technological evolution is advancing at great speed: driverless cars have driven hundreds of thousands of miles on roads in the United States and parts of Europe, thought-controlled robotic prosthetics are helping people who have lost limbs regain the ability to walk and ‘grasp’ every day items in their hands, machine learning — the ability of a software program to actively learn from previous texts and submit suggestions — in our smartphones and computer systems nudges us towards which movie to watch or book to buy.

There is another seemingly mundane but profoundly important application of this technology: to better managers ourselves and our time. The future of productivity is coming, and it will rely on Artificial Intelligence.

The underlying technology behind all of the advances in robotic technology mentioned above is Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). A.I., often referred to as the ability of computers to think like humans, has been a main goal of many computer and cognitive scientists for the last sixty to eighty years. And one of the principle goals of A.I. developers has long been to help humans be more productive.

With the exception of commercial ventures such as Google’s search and related products, the largest known A.I. project to date was instigated by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 2003 DARPA contracted SRI International to lead a reported $200 million, five-year project to build a virtual assistant. The project consisted of up to 500 experts in machine learning, natural language processing, knowledge representation, human–computer interaction, flexible planning, and behavioral studies who were tasked with building a Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO).

The goal of CALO was to become what the technology industry now calls a ‘cognitive assistant,’ – what many of us think of as administrative or personal assistants. This ambitious goal envisioned a software program that learns by ‘observing and learning from the past, acting in the present and anticipating the future.’ CALO would be able to assist its user with organizing and prioritizing information, mediating human communication, resource allocation, task management decisions, and scheduling and prioritizing.

In 2008, with the agreement of DARPA, a private company co-founded by three of the engineers from SRI International was spun out of the CALO project . The company was registered as SIRI Inc. and by 2010 was acquired by Apple and launched as part of the iPhone operating system in October 2011.

So disruptive was this realization of the cognitive assistant that at the time of Siri’s launch, then Google CEO, Eric Schmidt called it a competitive threat to Google’s core search business. In other words, it had the potential to fundamentally reshape the way we interact with information.

Schmidt elaborated on this potential in his recent book: The New Digital Age – Reshaping the future of people, nations and business:

Centralizing the many moving parts of one’s life into an easy to use almost intuitive system of information management and decision-making will give all interactions with technology an effortless feel. These systems will free us of many small burdens, including errands to do list and assorted monitoring tasks – that today add stress and chip away at our mental focus throughout the day. By relying on these integrated systems, which will encompass both the professional and the personal sides of our lives, we’ll be able to use our time more effectively each day.

Suggestion engines that offer alternative terms to help a user find what she is looking for will be a particularly useful aid in efficiency by consistently stimulating our thinking process, ultimately enhancing our creativity, not preempting it. So there will be plenty of ways to procrastinate too but the point is that when you choose to be productive, you can do so with greater capacity…

…Other advances in the pipeline in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence and voice recognition will introduce efficiency into our lives by providing more seamless forms of engagement with the technology in our daily routines.

This technology will surely save many of us time in our daily affairs.

In a wide-ranging TED interview Larry Page, the CEO of Google, Inc., was asked by the interviewer, Charlie Rose, why companies fail. His answer was: “They miss the future.” Page elaborated on his theory and also indicated that advances in Artificial Intelligence would play a significant role in the future, he also said one of the pressing issues behind these advances in A.I. for every day matters was improvements in our ‘scheduling.’

Many of the articles in Harvard Business Review attest to the fact that we want to improve our ability to get more things done in a timely manner and have more work/life balance. All of which suggests that today’s breakthroughs in A.I. are tomorrow’s breakthroughs in productivity. Google, Apple and others, such as Intel and IBM, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in A.I. research and development and patent applications as a means of providing a solution to help us manage our most precious resource – time — through the use of a personal interactive cognitive (robotic) assistant.

The Present

Despite advances in technology such as synchronized calendars and To Do Lists that integrate with our email systems, many of us still fail to achieve important goals, miss project deadlines, and forget simple day-to-day tasks.

Professor Dan Ariely, who is well known for his work in behavioral economics and books on helping us overcome irrational behavior, together with his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded, ‘through empirical evidence that procrastination is a real behavioral problem,’ which impacts our work and personal life.

I find that one of the key reasons we still procrastinate and fail to achieve on many of the intentions we set, despite the above advances, is simply one of effort: technology alone cannot create sustained great results (at least not yet), it requires us to be active participants.

Google Now and Siri are already very similar to our own personal Watson (the Jeopardy winning IBM software). These personal cognitive assistants can acquire knowledge about us so they can better anticipate our wishes, learn enough about our preferences to make recommendations and when coupled with other devices such as Google’s crowd-sourced Waze mapping technology can help us with factors such as improved travel time to and from appointments to avoid road incidents.

When I tell Siri or Google Now to remind me to contact a client about some matter next time I am in the office, it stores a reminder and its geo-location positioning device pings me as I sit at my desk. If I want to collect flowers on my way home it will notify me of the closest florists on the route – it can reserve restaurant tables and in some countries Google Now can even read a restaurant menu, soon it will also check if it serves your dietary preferences before recommending the restaurant.

Through voice recognition I can dictate a text message or email and have it sent by my cognitive assistant. The more I use this technology the more it recognizes how I break down tasks and the times of day I am most productive, this helps me ensure I am most efficient on high priority tasks. The ability of today’s cognitive assistants is really quite remarkable – it just requires a little effort to get going but the results can be significant – but it is just the beginning.

Thanks to continued progress by A.I. researchers, the long-imagined potential of cognitive assistants is finally arriving. As robots become increasingly intelligent, so too do we.

Parts of this post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. (Picture credit)

Inside DeepMind

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A new paper from Google’s DeepMind team indicates that their technology is a “novel artificial agent” that combines two existing forms of brain-inspired machine intelligence: a deep neural network and a reinforcement-learning algorithm.

This new paper, Human-level control through deep reinforcemenlearning, illustrates DeepMind’s neural agent learning to play dozens of computer games from only minimal information. In other words, the DeepMind algorithms help the game playing A.I. analyze its previous performance, decipher which actions led to better scores, and change its future behavior.

The co-founder of DeepMind Demis Hassabis recently said: “The artificial general intelligence we work on here automatically converts unstructured information into useful, actionable knowledge.” Which is similar to an article I wrote at the time of the Google acquisition: “reinforcement learning algorithms can help people make better decisions, as it will provide users with the best data available.”

Effectively DeepMind has discovered a way of integrating memory into learning algorithms!

Take a look at this Nature video Inside DeepMind – this is certainly a big advance forward in AI and Google’s quest to provide the most advanced personal assistant through GoogleNow:

It’s interesting to hear Demis indicate in 10 years AI may be able to help us with scientific discoveries – in another interview on Neural Networks his Google colleague, Geoff Hinton thinks – “We’re far from human intelligence. Hinton remains intrigued and inspired by the brain, but he knows he’s not recreating it. It’s not even close.”

International Robotics Challenge Announced

MBZIRC

With much wisdom and foresight Edward Teller, in his 1975 “Energy: A Plan for Action” envisions a world where highly “skilled scientist-technicians” are surrounded by an army of “craftsmen” who monitor, develop, and control the automated production processes with computer networks, indicating:

No matter what popular opinion asks us to believe, technology will be crucial for human survival. Contrary to much of our current thinking, technology and its development is not antithetical to human values. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. Tool making and the social organization it implies are very deeply ingrained in our natures. This is, in fact, the primary attribute that distinguishes man from other animals.

We must continue to adapt our technology, which is, in essence, our ability to shape nature more effectively in order to face the problems that this human race faces today. It is for this reason that the development and expansion of technical education is so important. It is only through the possession of high skills and the development of educational systems for the acquisition of these skills that human prosperity can be insured.

In what seems recognition of the fundamentals of Teller’s statement, Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, announced a new robotics challenge as part of the UAE’s year of innovation.

The international robotics challenge under the patronage of His Highness General Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, will be held every two years and offers prizes worth a total of USD 5 million, with the first challenge being held in November, 2016.

Each group of finalists will receive US$500,000, with the winning team receiving US$2 million dollars.

In the outline of the challenge the organizers understand that ‘Robotics technology is poised to fuel a broad array of next-generation products and applications across a diverse range of fields.’

The aim of the international robotics challenge according to Dr. Mohammed Al Mualla, Senior Vice President of Research and Development at Khalifa University is:

to shape the future of worldwide robotic technology and its uses by offering a challenge that requires conducting research, inventing new solutions and applying them to a real life scenario.

The first challenge in November next year will focus on land and aerial robots that can assess situations and work together in emergencies, which the website of the challenge describes as taking:

place at an arena that simulates the scene of an accident and involves a large moving vehicle being on fire. The competing teams will design a set of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)’s and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV)’s, which will work autonomously without any human intervention to handle this incident. The challenge involves performing a set of complex tasks, such as landing UAV’s on the moving vehicle’s rooftop and the activating the emergency brakes system that the vehicle is equipped with. It then coordinates with the UGV’s to move towards the burning vehicle and activate the fire extinguishing system by avoiding a lot of obstacles that will be deployed in the field. Air and ground robots will then cooperate to locate the victims and conduct operations to transport them out of the scene.

The challenge is also aiming to boost the robotics ecosystem in the UAE and help local industry as well as play a major part in attracting robotics talent and students to UAE universities. Dr Arif Al Hammadi, executive vice president at the Khalifa university said: “We want to for every university in the UAE to eventually have a robotics lab for its students.”

A call for proposals will begin in May, with submissions due in September 2015. Finalists will be chosen in November this year and the challenge will take place in the UAE in November next year.

The organizers indicate that the overall objective of this challenge is to advance the state of the robotics industry and to build better-designed robots. Because the challenge is performance based, teams from around the world will demonstrate their abilities to produce advanced robots in a highly competitive team based environment.

Additional information about the Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge (MBZIRC) is available on the challenge website.

Photo credit the MBZIRC website.

Robotics – here’s to the crazy ones

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In the early 1970s the UK Government commissioned a special report Artificial Intelligence: A General Survey authored by James Lighthill on behalf of the Science & Engineering Research Council (the infamous Lighthill Report) which damned A.I. and was “highly critical” of basic research in foundational areas such as robotics. The report recommendations led to the withdrawal of research funding from all but three UK universities. The same kind of official doubts which the Lighthill Report made explicit in the UK lay behind a less extreme slow down in research funding in the US. This is sometimes referred to generically as the “first A.I. winter.”

This was changed, some ten years later, in the late 1980’s under, the then, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after the publication of The Alvey Report; Britain’s strategic computing initiative, recommended putting a lot of money into A.I. research, which they renamed Knowledge Based Systems. Robotics, closely associated with A.I., was also a recipient of the new flow of government support, which was meant to help improve Britain’s lagging fortunes against the growing success of the Japanese economy. Folklore tells us that despite her agreement to proceed with the funding Mrs. Thatcher still considered the scientists and engineers, or the “Artificial intelligentsia,” to be seriously deranged.

However the investment flows were not significant on a global scale. As a result in the second decade of the 21st century, despite the promises of a robot revolution, there are still less than approximately 1.3 million industrial robots in active service worldwide, and, whilst we are seeing some progress in ‘soft’ A.I., most notably products such as Google Now and Siri along with IBM’s Watson, Peter Thiel, known for investing in several A.I. companies, such as UK based DeepMind (sold to Google for circa US$ 500 million) and Vicarious wrote in his Founder’s Fund manifesto:

While we have the computational power to support many versions of A.I., the field remains relatively poorly funded, a surprising result given that the development of powerful A.I.s (even if they aren’t general A.I.s) would probably be one of the most important and lucrative technological advances in history.

Things do however appear to have changed. Investments in robotics and A.I. seem to be surging once again, the US National Science Foundation has invested at least US$ 89 million in robotics labs in the last few years and earlier this year the European Commission formally announced the world’s largest investment into Robotics. Other countries and businesses are also investing heavily into the sector.

On the 9th December I attended the robotics Brokerage Day held by euRobotics in Brussels, Belgium. The Brokerage day was essentially an education and networking day aimed at assisting Robotic research labs and industry partner up to apply for grants under one of the EU’s grant calls (ICT 2015), where a total grant budget of 561 million Euros is available. Around 300 participants from 30 countries attended the event with over 50 teaser presentations given.

Health care

The area of health care robotics, including robots to help the elderly and disabled was particularly prominent.

Research Professor Dr. Sven Behnke of the University of Bonn discussed his labs work on ‘Cognitive robots,’ which he believes represents the “next step in the fusion of machines, computing, sensing, and software to create intelligent systems capable of interacting with the complexities of the real world.” This included smart mobile manipulation of every day care duties, such as cleaning the floor or handling a bottle.

Several research labs and companies such as Antonio Frisoli of Wearable Robotics from Italy and Volkan Patoglu, of Sabanci University, İstanbul, Turkey discussed work on exoskeleton’s to provide people with the ability to be mobile after losing a limb or other disability.

Enrico Castelli of the Children’s Hospital in Rome presented their pioneering work on exoskeleton’s for children with neurological disorders.

Elvan Gunduz spoke of SciRobots approach to building care robots to help people with dementia, helping sufferers live a ‘good life.’

Hazardous environments

Other researchers outlined their work on providing robots to work in hazardous environments, think fire fighting, underground mining or nuclear disasters.

Cloud robotics

It was very clear that labs and industry shared a common goal that: “No robot is an island.” Believing that advances in artificial intelligence and robot software can be greatly enhanced by the ability of researchers and robots to access a local network to improve self-driving cars, logistics and factory planning.

Child like curiosity, not deranged 

Mrs. Thatcher may have been impressed with the advances on display although the child-like curiosity by so many adult robot enthusiasts, me included, may not have changed her mind about how crazy one needs to be to believe you can change the world with robotics – she may not have been familiar with Steve Jobs toast to the crazy ones, who see things differently and make a difference in the world through their visions and creations.

What was clear in this child like derangement, roboticists genuinely believe they are building some of the most important tools of the 21st century – I agree.

Photo credit: Dr. Sven Behnke of the University of Bonn 

Why Your Employees Should Be Playing With Lego Robots

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Two years ago, Swedish communications technology giant Ericsson found itself looking for a way to explain the value it saw in the Internet of Things. Rather than publish another whitepaper on the topic, the company struck on a different communication tool: Legos. More specifically, Lego robots.

Ericsson used Lego Mindstorm robots in a demonstration at the 2012 Mobile World Congress to bring to life its vision of how connected machines might change the way we live. A laundry-robot sorted socks by color and placed them in different baskets while it chatted with the washing machine. A gardening-robot watered the plants when the plants said they were thirsty. A cleaner-robot collapsed and trashed empty cardboard coffee cups that it collected from the table, and a dog-like robot fetched the newspaper when the alarm clock rang.

Social Networking for LEGO Mindstorms Robots

Rather than merely talking or writing about its vision, Ericsson saw robots as a perfect medium for explaining its ideas. This is more than just a smart marketing campaign. As a variety of researchers have argued, it may offer a way to better equip workers with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Training programs that encourage the use of robots to achieve goals – not just by playing with them, but by building them — encourage participants to use their creativity and natural curiosity to overcome problems through hands-on experiences.

Lego’s Mindstorm robots (or education and innovation kits as they are sometimes known) were developed in collaboration with MIT Media Lab as a solution for education and training in the mid to late 90’s. The work was an outcome of research by Professor Seymour Papert, who was co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab with Marvin Minsky. Papert later co-founded the Epistemology and Learning Group within the MIT Media Lab. Papert’s work has had a major impact on how people develop knowledge, and is especially relevant for building twenty-first century skills.

Papert and his collaborators’ research indicates that training programs using robotics influences participants’ ability to learn numerous essential skills, especially creativity, critical thinking, and learning to learn or “metacognition”. They also emphasize important approaches to modern work, like collaboration and communication.

This form of learning is called constructionism, and it is premised on the idea that people learn by actively constructing new knowledge, not by having information “poured” into their heads. Moreover, constructionism asserts that people learn with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in “constructing” personally meaningful artifacts. People don’t get ideas; theymake them.

Papert’s influential book Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas as well as extensive scientific research into fields such as cognition, psychology, evolutionary psychology, and epistemology illustrate how this pedagogy can be combined with robotics to yield a powerful, hands-on method of training.

In training courses that use robotics, the program leader sets problems to be solved. Teams are presented with a box of pieces and simple programs that can run on iPads, iPhones, or Android tablets and phones. They are given basic training in the simple programming skills required and then set free to solve the problem presented.

Problems can be as ‘simple’ as building a robot to pass through a maze in a certain time frame, which requires trial and error and lots of critical thinking. What size wheels to use for speed and maneuverability, what drain on battery power, which sensors to use for guidance around walls. One team may decide to build a small drone to view and map out the terrain of the maze, this would require theorizing on the weight of the robotic drone and relaying data filmed to a mapping system which the on-ground robot could use to negotiate through the maze.

It is an entirely goal-driven process.

Participants get to design, program, and fully control functional robotic models. They use software to plan, test, and modify sequences of instructions for a variety of robotic behaviors. And they learn to collect and analyze data from sensors, using data logging functionalities embedded in the software. They gain the confidence to author algorithms, which taps critical thinking skills, and to creatively configure the robot to pursue goals.

Participants from all backgrounds gain key team building skills through collaborating closely at every stage of ideation, innovation, deployment, evaluation and scaling. At the end of the training teams are required to present their ideas and results, building effective communication skills.

It is quite astonishing to see how teams have developed robots to achieve tasks such as solving Rubik’s cubes in seconds, playing Sudoku and drawing portraits, creating braille printers, taking part in soccer and basketball games. These robots have even been used for improving ATM security.

Using robots in training programs to overcome challenges pushes participants out of their comfort zone. It deepens their awareness of complexity and builds ownership and responsibility.

The array of skills and work techniques that this kind of training offers is more in need today than ever, as technology is rapidly changing the skills demanded in the workplace.

Instead of programming people to act like robots, why not teach them to become programmers, creative thinkers, architects, and engineers? For companies seeking to develop these skills in their employees, hands-on goal-focused training using robots can help.

This post initially appeared on Harvard Business Review

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