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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 


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