Immigrants from the future: Robots offer a unique insight into what people want from technology. That makes their progress peculiarly fascinating

Immigrants from the future: Robots offer a unique insight into what people want from technology. That makes their progress peculiarly fascinating, says Oliver Morton

Mar 29th 2014 | From the print edition

SCHAFT, A BLUE-LIMBED robot, lifts its right foot to the seventh step of the ladder, its left foot to the eighth, and stops; it sways alarmingly in the strong Florida sea breeze. Of the 17 teams competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a first-of-its-kind event held at a speedway track near Miami in December 2013, only two others got their robots this high up the ladder. One of those two then took a nasty tumble.

For most of a minute SCHAFT is still, except for a flap on its chest that slowly rises and falls in a breathing motion. Then it springs into action again. Its left knee straightens, its right foot rises, its left knee bends again—not forwards, as a human knee would, but backwards—and in four swift movements it firmly plants both feet on the platform at the top of the ladder.

With this latest triumph SCHAFT has become the undisputed champion of the DRC. In the past two days it has driven a small jeep-like car over a short, twisting course, walked over ramps, steps and rubble, negotiated various doorways, cleared debris from its path, cut a hole in a wall with a power tool, connected a fire hose and shut off a series of valves. Now, as the Japanese engineers who built it celebrate below, it squats impassively on its backwards-facing haunches.

The prize for victory is not just the applause of fans, rivals and robo-curious spectators, who have come in their thousands. DARPA, the Pentagon research agency which runs the DRC, is rewarding the best teams at the event with up to $1m so that they can improve their robots and compete again in a year’s time at a more demanding second event. All told the project is costing it some $80m.

The agency made robots a priority because, like many others, it suspects that the technology may be on the cusp of scaling far greater heights than a nine-step aluminium ladder. It is expressing its support in the unusual, quasi-sporting, highly public forum of the DRC because robotics is a technology unlike any other. As machines that sense their environment, analyse it and respond accordingly, robots lend themselves to showmanship, judged as they are by their actions in the world (this special report will deal only glancingly with other machines sometimes called robots that do not have a moving physical presence, such as software “bots” or stationary bits of automation). They exert a fascination, both on their designers and their fans, that transcends the technology’s current practical uses. The engineers who made SCHAFT started their company not because they thought it would make them a fortune, says Takashi Kato, an entrepreneurial investor who helped them with it; they did it “because they would rather build robots than anything else”.

This fascination has produced robots of many shapes and sizes. Academics have tried their hand at mimicking nature, basing robots on everything from termites to pterodactyls. For robots designed to make money, form has followed function, leading to the multi-jointed, mostly cast-iron arms of the world’s 1.2m-1.5m manufacturing robots; the spindlier limbs of robots designed for surgery; the deep-pan pizza-dish form of service robots that vacuum the floors of the house-proud and gadget-friendly. But at the DRC, as in the public imagination, the robots are mostly humanoid.

There are exceptions. RoboSimian, competing on behalf of JPL, the laboratory that runs most of NASA’s planetary missions, looks appropriately alien, with the knees, or elbows, of its four limbs articulated in ways that are distinctly non-human, and for that matter un-simian; it moves more like a body-popping spider. SCHAFT, though, has two legs and two arms, even if it lacks a recognisable head and its hips do double duty as shoulders. Hubo, a South Korean robot being used by two of the teams, and Atlas, the machine chosen by seven American teams, go the whole arms-legs-head-and-shoulders humanoid hog.

The reason for this convergence on the humanoid form is that they must function in an environment shaped to human specifications. The ladders, doors, valves and rubble of the DRC are meant to test how well robots would cope if sent into a disaster area inaccessible to humans, such as a stricken nuclear power station or chemical plant. And although such rescue operations are unusual, the constraints they impose fit with one of the main aims of current robotic research: learning how to operate flexibly in an environment designed for humans, not robots.


Inspect the complete line-up here

Not coincidentally, such operations are typical of robots in science fiction—the land of their birth. More thoroughly than any other technology—except, perhaps, that of the spaceship—robots were imagined in print and on film long before they were created in laboratories and installed in factories (some of the cinematic imaginings serve to illustrate this special report). And to some extent robots remain science fiction to this day; they may have become real, but they continue to be shaped by expectations created by fiction and continuously nurtured by it.

There have always been stories of artificial people and magical mechanisms. They were, though, for the most part singular creations, given their being through mystical powers or masterly skills. The fiction of the 20th century introduced something new: mass production. Like the factory-made labourers to which the word was first applied in Karel Capek’s play, “R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots”, robots became both the products of industrial technology and a way of talking about that technology’s effects: of what it does to people’s futures; of how it can make them robotic in themselves; of how it still always seems to leave some space for the strange and quirky.

Fiction before fact

Capek’s factory-born robots, embodying anxieties about industrial progress, rose up to wipe out the human race, and many of their fictional successors have followed a similar course. But Isaac Asimov, a Russian-born American who did more than anyone else to steer science fiction towards the idea of robots as industrial artefacts, offered a kinder, more complex version of the conflict between the made and the makers. Before electronic computers existed, Asimov saw that robots would be programmed, and thus constrained by their programming. He also realised that humans would fail to appreciate the predictability such programming brought, and that the clash between what was programmed and what humans expected of, wanted from and feared in their robots would be a rich source of plots.

But for all that they were industrial, Asimov’s robots were also the product of a particular sensibility, background and set of concerns—those of a child of hard-working and hard-pressed Russian parents in 1930s Brooklyn. Always content to do what they are told; always consigned to work on the “dull, dirty, dangerous” jobs; often uneasily aware that they are superior in some ways to their masters; endlessly at risk of pogrom because of their masters’ resentment and fear of them: his robot stories, and those of his successors, were immigrant stories. Except that the robots are immigrants not from abroad but from the future.

Robot researchers are keenly aware of the fictional foundations of their work. Gill Pratt, an academic from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) currently on secondment to DARPA, where he runs the DRC programme, immediately brings up Asimov when asked why he got interested in robots. Any visit to a Japanese robot laboratory soon leads to a discussion about Astro Boy, the helpful android who in the 1960s starred in Japan’s first popular animated television show, to help explain the country’s rampant robophilia. And robots that offer domestic services are routinely compared to Rosie, the robot maid in “The Jetsons”, an American television show of the same vintage. No discussion of the military use of drones will continue for long without reference to the “Terminator” films.

Yet those who work with robots also know better than anyone else that what they do, although prefigured and even shaped by fiction, still falls far short of it. Willow Garage, a robotics company founded in 2006 by Scott Hassan, one of the first people to work at Google, spent millions of dollars developing PR2, a two-armed “personal robot” designed to help with tasks at home and elsewhere. Able to navigate itself and manipulate objects of various sorts with its hands, it is about as good at what it does as any robot built so far, and dozens have been sold or donated to research laboratories around the world. Still, it is, Mr Hassan says, “dumber than a doornail”.

In “A Christmas Carol”, the first thing Charles Dickens tells the reader is that Jacob Marley is “dead as a doornail”: this fact “must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am to relate”. Something similar applies to the doornail dumbness of robots. To see what may come of them, however wonderful, you have distinctly to understand how very little thought they are currently capable of. They are roughly as intelligent as a small bug, says Mr Pratt.


The field of artificial intelligence (AI), from which academic robotics has developed, has achieved quite a lot since it was founded in the 1960s—but nothing like the generalised intelligence, capable of seeing, understanding and planning, that those founders were after. It has shown that although computers can easily do some things people find hard (such as playing chess), they cannot fathom many things people can do without thinking. Getting robots to walk moderately well has taken decades and many hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly spent in Japan. To get a (non-walking) PR2 simply to recognise a thing that needs picking up still takes a lot of work. In Masayuki Inaba’s laboratory at the University of Tokyo, where some of the SCHAFT team got their start, a PR2 programmed by gifted students tried to serve your correspondent a can of coffee from a fridge. It opened the fridge door and got the coffee out, but then tried to serve the can to the fridge instead.

The reason why a robot like SCHAFT can negotiate doors, climb ladders, cut holes in walls and so on is that it is getting help from humans. All the robots at the DRC were being “tele-operated”; their near-term goals were set and monitored by operators in the garages that line the speedway track’s pit lane. The robots were keeping their balance and taking their steps using on-board software and processing power; the back-room boys were interpreting what the robots saw and planning their next moves.

The robots that did best in Florida will reconvene in late 2014 or early 2015 for the finals, where the tasks will be harder and performance, everyone hopes, better. Mr Pratt explains that one purpose of the DARPA challenge is to give a sense of how much robotic progress a year of research and funding can buy. A previous competition proved wildly successful at promoting progress in a related field. The first DARPA Grand Challenge, in 2004, required teams to get cars to drive themselves over a 240km desert route. None of them made it even a 20th of the distance. Yet when the race was reconvened a year later, better software for mapping and understanding the world allowed five competitors to complete the course. In the exhibition ground at the DRC sat one of Google’s driverless cars, its ancestry directly traceable to the winning team in that second challenge. If such progress is possible on the roads, why not in the kitchen, the retirement home or the shopping mall?

The comparison is given extra bite by Google’s acquisition, in the run-up to the DRC, of eight robotics companies with products and services at various levels of development. They included the Japanese startup that made SCHAFT as well as Boston Dynamics, which has done a great deal of work for DARPA. It designed and built the Atlas robots that most of the American DRC teams were using, and has produced impressive walking and running quadruped robots for military test programmes.

Putting money on it

Google is being tight-lipped about its plans for all these robots; speculation on what lies ahead ranges from far better factory automation and door-to-door delivery robots to a mission to the moon which will allow, on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, one small step for robotkind. But the mere fact that a company with an impressive track record in innovation has rounded up a lot of robot engineering talent and intellectual property is a striking vote of confidence in the field’s prospects. That does not mean that robots in general will progress as quickly as driverless cars have done; progress in robotics will often be limited by the rate at which the most difficult of all the different kinds of problem encountered can be solved. But change does not have to be fast for its long-run consequences to be profound.

Nor do robots have to become fully autonomous in order to be able to do a far wider range of interesting and useful things than they do today. For the most part they are not replacements for humans; they are better seen as extensions. Humans can come together to do things they cannot do alone; in future they will increasingly come together with robots to do things they cannot otherwise do so easily, or in some cases at all.

Robotic extensions will come in a variety of forms. But just as the need to work at a range of tasks in the human world can force robots into a humanoid shape, so the need to work with humans in that world means that many of them will become, to some extent, socially humanoid. The most useful robots will be those that are best suited to working with people, at whatever level of autonomy is appropriate to the task. To fit into the social world, robots will need to take both casual and formal instructions and to meet tacit expectations: daunting tasks for doornails.

But robots could move farther into the social world than people currently expect, in part because that world may prove oddly welcoming. People will ascribe human feelings to, and invest their own feelings in, things which have only the most passing claim to them—cats, toys, comfort blankets. And, pace Asimov, the relationship need not always be one of fear and distrust. Especially when helped along by good design, people can be quite empathetic towards technology.

The ladder task at the DRC demonstrates the point. It was impressive to see SCHAFT reach the top of its ladder when so many others had only barely got off the ground. But it was remarkable to see Drexel University’s little Hubo reach the last step and then succumb to a gust of wind, losing its footing. The most arresting thing was not the slip itself—a safety harness stopped the robot’s fall before it could hit the ground—but the gasp of genuine dismay from the onlookers. Writers invented robots as a way of exploring human feelings about technology; the depth of those feelings may yet surprise their makers and users.


After slow beginnings, a big push in robotics now seems imminent

Mar 29th 2014 | From the print edition

ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Odense, a small city in southern Denmark, Enrico Krog Iversen shows off the building he has bought to serve as the new headquarters and assembly facility for Universal Robots, a company of which he is both the chief executive and a big shareholder. It is about ten times the size of the company’s current headquarters, a five-minute drive away. Universal Robots, founded in 2005 by academics from the nearby university, is growing pretty fast. In the past four years, says Mr Iversen, its sales have increased more than 40-fold. By 2017 he hopes for a turnover of DKr1 billion ($190m).

Universal Robots makes robot arms that are light and easily programmed, and hence well suited to use in small manufacturing businesses. At €22,000 ($31,000) each, plus a similar amount in set-up costs, they are also affordable. Universal’s website is stuffed with case studies to demonstrate to potential buyers that the robots’ cost can be recouped in less than a year.

The advent of robots that are cheap and safe enough to be used outside big factories is one reason for a resurgence of interest in robotics over the past few years. Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based company founded by one of the most respected researchers in the field, Rodney Brooks, has attracted a lot of media interest because it sells a particularly appealing and innovative two-armed robot, Baxter, designed for this market.


Whereas Rethink and Universal focus on smallish customers, others are planning to go big. Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that manufactures and assembles electronic kit, says it is aiming to roboticise much of its operation with hundreds of thousands of its own relatively cheap Foxbots.

Affordable does not necessarily mean simple. UBR-1 is a robot arm sitting on an autonomous body that can navigate from place to place. It was developed by Unbounded Robotics, a four-person startup which, like a number of others, was recently spun out of Scott Hassan’s Willow Garage, the hothouse that developed the PR2 robot mentioned in the previous article. UBR-1 is a sort of pared-down, one-armed and less capable PR2, if a much more attractive piece of industrial design. But then, starting at $35,000, it is only about a tenth the price of its older sibling.

This is all a long way from the high-value industrial-robot market served by big manufacturers like Germany’s KUKA, Sweden’s ABB and Japan’s Fanuc and Yaskawa. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), between 2008 and 2012 industrial-robot sales increased by 7% a year, to $8.7 billion. The business is concentrated in Japan, South Korea, Germany, China and America, and on specific industries like cars and electronics. Car companies use the lion’s share of industrial robots; in 2012 they accounted for 52% of robot installations in America. The country with the most robots per person is South Korea, which takes the technology very seriously.

Sensing progress

Cheaper robots should be able to move into fields in which today’s big beasts have shown only passing interest, such as food processing. But that is not the only reason for the buzz around robotics. In academia, robotics, which has been a slow developer compared with booming areas like biotechnology, is on a roll.

The most obvious spur to progress has been the increasing amount of computing power and sensor technology that can be bought for a given price. “Everything built out of silicon is taking off,” says Chris Atkeson, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon. Many of the benefits come in the clever things that people operating in bigger markets have found to do with better, cheaper chips, which can be useful to robot-makers.

Take the Kinect sensor developed at Microsoft for the company’s Xbox 360 game console, released in 2010. An array of microphones and cameras are artfully combined with high-powered chips and well-tailored software to sense players’ movements from a distance and apply them to the game.

Used in robotics, the Kinect sensor is a cheap, easy and fairly reliable way to provide both a sense of depth and a kind of “person-detector”, which is a great help to robots that need to map and navigate their surroundings. Most robot laboratories have some version of it, either bolted to a robot or mounted on the wall or ceiling. A shopping mall in Osaka is wired up with the sensors set up by Japan’s Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International to tell robots where they are and how to spot the shoppers to whom they are learning to give leaflets and directions.

As well as having access to better sensors and processors from other fields, robotics has devised its own new ways of making software for them. The PR2 was a test bed for the Robot Operating System (ROS), a uniform way of passing messages between the various software routines that run a robot. ROS, now looked after by a not-for-profit spin-off from Willow Garage, the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), is free to use and easily customised, and is being taken up by more and more researchers, many of whom happily share their fixes to the software. Using an ROS navigation “stack” and a Kinect, it is now relatively easy to build a rudimentary robot capable of finding its way round a building—call it a “trundlebot”—though making it robust and reliable is a lot harder.

S.K. Gupta, a robotics researcher at the University of Maryland who is currently running the National Robotics Initiative at America’s National Science Foundation (NSF), sees ROS and the like not just as solutions to specific problems but as developments that are reshaping the field. Robotics used to be hard to do because to make even a poor robot you had to be good at a whole lot of different things: artificial intelligence, building manipulators, engineering joints and wheels, electronics and so on. As a result, academic robotics research has generally been concentrated at universities that already have a flourishing robotics programme with capabilities across the board, such as Carnegie Mellon, MIT and the University of Tokyo. Now a small team with a fresh insight in a single area—making hands, say, or machine-learning—can use ROS and reasonably cheap hardware to put together a robotic system on which to try out its ideas without being expert in any of the other areas involved. Perhaps as a consequence, the first funding round for the initiative Mr Gupta oversees produced applications for $1 billion in grants, more than 20 times the amount eventually awarded.

Sometimes there is no need to build a physical robot at all. Many of the teams that used Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot at the DRC had no real-world experience in getting bipedal robots to nip around without falling over. They were chosen through a preliminary competition in which the software they had developed for the trials was used to animate a virtual robot in a simulated environment called Gazebo, which had been developed by the OSRF and hosted in the cloud. Being able to try out robot software in real time this way, says DARPA’s Mr Pratt, is a big deal. He draws an analogy with the early days of integrated circuits on silicon chips in the late 1970s. At first the only way to see how well a circuit was going to work—if at all—was to build it. It was only when simulators became available that designers could ensure in advance that the circuits would work, which vastly sped development in the field.

Back in the physical world, 3D printers—almost as ubiquitous as Kinect sensors in robotics labs—are another technology that is making research faster. Anders Billesø Beck of the Danish Technological Institute says they have greatly sped up his team’s efforts to find ways for small businesses to use robots. Instead of being sent out for manufacture, items like new designs for manipulators or little gizmos to hold a part being worked on can be cheaply produced in-house overnight.

There was very little academic research in robotics before there were undergraduates who had seen “Star Wars” as kids

Like Universal Robots’ premises, the Danish Institute’s robot labs are in Odense. Both can trace their origins to research at the city’s university decades ago, as can a number of other robot companies and consultancies in the area. Such clusters take time to come into their own, which may be another reason why robotics research feels as though it is entering a new stage of development. There was very little academic research before there were undergraduates who had seen “Star Wars” as kids; those former fans have now had a professional lifetime to build academic research groups and spin off companies.

The biggest cluster, that around MIT, is home not only to Boston Dynamics, to date supported mostly by military R&D contracts, but also to iRobot, which has shown the way in developing a profitable service-robotics business aimed at consumers. The company was started in 1990 by Mr Brooks (now at Rethink Robotics), Colin Angle and Helen Greiner, all robotics researchers at MIT’s artificial-intelligence lab. They knew they wanted to make a business out of robotics, but not what that business should be. It was not until 2002 that they came up with the two products that have made the company’s reputation: the Packbot, which has helped soldiers deal with improvised-explosive attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Roomba, which cleans floors. The company has sold more than 8m of these; last year home robots, mostly Roombas, accounted for 88% of its sales.

The company not only makes a profit; it has also rewarded its original investors by going public in 2005, something which no other robot startup has done. However, in the past few years a number of them have been bought up for tidy sums. In 2012 Amazon, a retailing giant, took over Kiva Systems, a company based near Boston which makes robots for warehouses. Google’s robotic acquisitions followed in late 2013. “Great news for the industry,” says Mr Angle.

Such proof of viable exit strategies should inspire further investment, which a new French fund, Robolution, hopes to tap. Its boss, Bruno Bonnell, explains that ten years ago he was unable to persuade the company he ran, Infogrames/Atari, to get into robots. He left to become the French distributor for iRobot’s Roombas. In 2006 he sold 800; last year the figure had risen to 100,000. In early 2014 he closed the Robolution fund for early investment in robot companies at €80m, admittedly most of it put in by the French government and the European Union. Pointing to a sharp increase in American venture funding for robots—he puts it at $400m last year—he is convinced a lot of talent can be got out of European labs too.

Another potential source of money may be entrepreneurs who have done well out of other technologies at a young age and for whom the science-fiction feel of robotics is a turn-on, not a danger signal. The space business points the way. Elon Musk is shaking it up, using some of his internet-derived riches to create SpaceX, a disruptively good rocket-maker; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a rocket company too, and Google’s Larry Page takes a keen interest in such things. Robots offer a similar attraction; witness Mr Hassan’s creation of Willow Garage with some of the money he made from Google. Or, indeed, witness Google itself. The company’s recent acquisitions in the field are being supervised by Andy Rubin, who has long been fascinated by robots. When he developed the operating system Google uses for mobile phones, which became a great success, he named it Android.

Promise in the cloud

Google’s expertise at dealing with huge amounts of data will almost certainly play a key part in its plans. By drawing on the computing power of cloud-based systems, its robots, and others, should be able to do much more than they are currently capable of. The self-driving car demonstrates the idea; it can mesh information on its whereabouts from its sensors with maps of the world held in the cloud, with various programs using the comparison to generate instructions for the cars’ motors, steering systems and so on. Ken Goldberg of the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that a similar use of “cloud robotics”—a term coined by a Google employee, James Kuffner—could make it much easier for robots to recognise objects for what they are and act accordingly.

The cloud already houses libraries and programs that can help computers work out what an image is of, and robots to work out from the shape of an object how to pick it up. The European Union’s “RoboEarth” project imagines a cloud-based system that would contain all sorts of such information in a form that robots could use, and that would let robots learn from each other, both about the world around them and about successful ways of tackling tasks in that world.

Far better computers, on board and in the cloud; good, cheap sensors; maturing industrial-academic clusters; a broadening and speeding up of the field’s research base; expanding markets; exciting hardware; and a newly encouraging investment outlook: all of these have helped stimulate interest in robotics. The collapse of another science-fiction dream at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in 2011 gave it an extra push. Mr Pratt traces the genesis of the DRC to the day after a tsunami hit Fukushima, when it became clear that the robots needed for such emergencies, widely believed to exist already, were nowhere to be found. Mr Inaba at Tokyo University suggests that some day emergency robots will become mandatory at big industrial installations, just as fire extinguishers are required in offices.

And a final reason why interest in robots has taken off is that some of the machines have been doing so themselves, in a very high-profile way. The greatly expanded role of aerial drones in warfare shows what such machines can achieve—and raises both hopes and fears about what they may do next.


Up in the air

Drones will change war—and more

Mar 29th 2014 | From the print edition

AMERICA’S DECADE OF misbegotten war in the early 21st century will be remembered for many things, but when it comes to technology, the rise of the drone will stand out. When America invaded Iraq in 2003, it had a couple of hundred; by the time it left, it had almost 10,000.

Pilotless aircraft had been around for decades. What was new was that, thanks to the Global Positioning System (GPS), they knew where they were, and thanks to better satellite and other communications links they could send back copious data. That allowed them to feed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to all levels of America’s increasingly information-hungry armed forces. A platoon of soldiers wanting to look beyond the building in front of them; an intelligence agency tracking a target; a general staff trying to understand what was going on across a broad area: today there is a drone for them all.

Throughout this entire period no drone, or indeed any other robot, was put through the full qualification process usually required for any new American weapons. They were sent into the field in various stages of unreadiness by people who saw a need for them. On the ground that need was dealing with bombs; in the air it was almost entirely ISR.

A very small number were used for launching attacks, both on the battlefield and off it, often in countries—Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia—with which America was not at war. Most of these attacks were carried out by the CIA, which is not new to killing people it has identified as enemies; its Operation Phoenix was responsible for the death of tens of thousands in South Vietnam in the 1970s. But drones allowed such tactics to be employed much farther away from any logistical support, and allowed decisions on whom to kill to be made far higher up the tree.

A small number of drones designed to fire missiles thus allowed new strategies to be adopted in the “global war on terror”—an example of how a relatively minor technological advance can have big consequences. Military drones, after all, are no cleverer than doornail-dumb earthbound robots; many are dumber still. They can do more because they operate in a much less difficult environment, with few obstacles in the way and most of the tasks achieved by pointing a camera or a missile in the right direction. The smart ones can follow commands such as “stay where you are,” “follow this flight plan” or “come home and land”; if their communications are cut off, some will return to the place where they last received a command. But humans are always involved in any tricky or lethal decisions.

That may change. Some military planners see a big future for drones—and for robots both on land and at sea—which will do a lot more than just provide ISR. The more drones that the armed forces deploy, the greater the pressure for autonomy becomes. One reason is cost: a drone that needs minimal supervision is a lot cheaper to operate than one that needs detailed attention. The other is safety. The greater your reliance on drones, the more your enemies will want to attack them. The drones’ command, control and communications network will become an important target. More autonomous drones are less vulnerable to such attack.

Not the drones you are looking for

Many people are alarmed by the idea that new forms of warfare will lead to increasingly deadly autonomous weapons, not just drones but also smart undersea systems. Various human-rights organisations have banded together in a “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” which seeks to ban fully autonomous weapons systems. The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, responsible for previous bans on laser blinding weapons and some types of explosives, will begin discussing such a ban in Geneva in May.

Some military lawyers claim that most of what the campaigners hope a ban would outlaw is in fact already illegal under existing rules of war, which forbid indiscriminate attacks; and for some purposes, such as defending ships against missile attacks, autonomous systems are both necessary (because of their speed of response) and legally and morally unproblematic, since they operate in areas where no civilians, and possibly no enemy combatants either, will be affected.

Once again, responses to robots reflect broader worries about technology. The idea that technology makes war too easy and removes its reliance on soldierly virtues goes far beyond concerns about the specific roles that robots might play. It is shared by a significant number of military men, who consider killing people a serious matter. Many would be deeply uneasy about delegating it. They have no problem with robots that may save the lives of their comrades—working on bomb disposal, looking round a corner into the unknown and perhaps in future evacuating the wounded from the battlefield. But robots that might replace those comrades (or, in an enemy’s hands, threaten them directly) are seen as much more troubling.

That may be one reason why, surprisingly, the Pentagon’s robot budget is currently shrinking. In its 2014 budget request unmanned systems’ funding was down by a third on the previous year. With ever fewer soldiers in combat zones, there is less need for bomb disposal and the like; but the money for both buying drones and developing better ones is scarce, too. Some, especially in the air force, never much cared for them anyway and are happy to make them a lower priority. And other programmes—most notably the extraordinarily expensive F-35 fighter plane—have far more effective champions in the military-industrial-congressional complex than drones do. At a recent meeting on autonomous weapons, a retired American colonel suggested that for the next decade or so there is no need to worry about America getting new drone capabilities because it will not get any new drones, period.

Mark Gunzinger, another retired colonel, now at CBSA, a Washington think-tank, worries about that. By not developing newer, better drones, he says, the armed forces risk missing opportunities for big improvements in their capabilities. Take aircraft carriers, whose ability to project force is fundamental to America’s global military strategy. Close to the coast of a sophisticated adversary, they are increasingly at risk of missile attack. If they had bomb- and missile-carrying drones on board, they might be able to strike from greater distances. An experimental American drone, the X47B, has shown that it can take off from and, more impressively, land on carriers. But there is currently no programme to develop that capability to allow carriers to attack well-defended targets on land from a safe distance at sea. That would require drones to be able to overcome enemy defences, which the present generation cannot do.

A deeper worry is that potential adversaries will themselves push ahead with drones, perhaps finding entirely new ways of using them en masse. Low-cost computing power has especially benefited drones that use a number of rotor blades for their lift; co-ordinating many rotors takes quite a lot of computing, but makes take-off and landing much easier. “Quadcopters” with a range of 10-20km and a battery life of half an hour are now mass-produced and can cost less than $1,000. A recent report on “War in 20YY” by CNAS, another think-tank, points out that the ability to blacken a town’s sky with a swarm of such gadgets, or send a wave of them across a sea, could produce completely new tactical possibilities; it might be the sort of technological development which changes how wars are won.

Drones will get cheaper still, in part because markets for them are opening up quickly. In America there is as yet no legal framework permitting their commercial use; elsewhere they are being used by journalists, for safety checks and—as in America—for fun. The Federal Aviation Administration is drawing up a regime for commercial use in the country’s air space from 2015.

Most of those uses, to begin with, will probably be in the civilian equivalent of ISR, both by government bodies such as police departments (of which America has 20,000) and by private entities. Chris Anderson, a former writer on this newspaper and now the boss of 3D Robotics, which makes drones, says they supply that fashionable commodity, big data, to fields where it is otherwise hard to come by, such as agriculture. Mr Anderson’s company, along with others, wants to enable “alpha farmers”—free-spending, tech-friendly innovators committed to coming up with the highest-quality produce—to keep an eye on their crops more or less plant by plant and hour by hour. When they have worked out what to do with such data, the rest of the industry may follow. Another use could be checking up on infrastructure such as roads, pipelines and transmission lines.

Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, who has written extensively on drone warfare, draws an analogy with military aviation to show how far drones have yet to go. At the beginning of the first world war, military aviation was largely concerned with reconnaissance. It grew quickly, taking on new roles with specialised bombers and fighters, and by 1918 there were tens of thousands of warplanes. Men like Billy Mitchell, Hugh Trenchard and Giulio Douhet started to argue that aircraft could fundamentally change warfare. The planes went on to do so, though not quite in the way that those air-power visionaries imagined.

For Mr Singer, the interesting part is what military aircraft in the first world war did not do. None of the planes was used for transmitting messages, moving cargo and people or spraying crops—the uses to which aircraft would be put in their hundreds of thousands over the next few decades. Today’s military drones are a little more diversified. Whereas most of them look and some kill, others are used for logistics or communications. But as they become more capable and the rules are relaxed, those other capabilities will come into their own beyond the battlefield.


Business service robots

The invisible unarmed

The best robot technology is unseen

Mar 29th 2014 | From the print edition

THE ANNOUNCEMENT IN November 2013 by Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, that he wanted to use drones for deliveries was, to many in the industry, something of a stretch. Applying drones safely on such a scale without line-of-sight control, and re-engineering the company’s logistics model accordingly, would be a big undertaking. But it generated a lot of media interest, and just in time for Christmas, too. His company’s most serious commitment to robotics to date—its acquisition in early 2012 of Kiva, a company whose robots move shelves around in warehouses—got far less attention. This is one example of a pervasive quality of robotic technology: the high visibility of its promises and the near-invisibility of its successes.

In the 1990s Danny Hillis, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, pointed out that when people talk about “technology” they really mean “everything that doesn’t work yet”; once technologies work they simply become computers, televisions, phones and the like. Robots suffer from a similar double standard. When they are seen as providing a reliable, routine solution to a problem—cleaning floors, for example—in some ways they cease being seen as robots. Conversely, as long as they continue to be seen as robots, they may seem experimental and bug-prone. One entrepreneur who recently used the word “robotics” in the name of a fledgling company is already having second thoughts, worrying that customers will expect the products to be both higher-tech and less reliable than they are.

It is quite easy to imagine a future in which “robots” remain an esoteric subject of public fascination even as more and more services are automated with techniques developed in robotics laboratories. Take Aethon, a Pittsburgh company that makes robots for hospitals. Its Tug robots, limbless and faceless, are uncharismatic but reliable heavy-duty trundlebots designed to move hospital trolleys around. Aethon’s boss, Aldo Zini, says he has come across hospitals where porters have to move dirty-linen carts weighing 350kg; such jobs carry a significant risk of injury and have a very high turnover. They fit the “dull, dangerous and dirty” category perfectly.

Aethon’s Tugs can be summoned with a smartphone app and attached to a trolley carrying pharmaceuticals, diagnostic materials, meals or laundry. About 150 hospitals, mostly in America, already use them. In some of those hospitals they could soon be running into (not literally; they have collision-avoidance systems) other trundlebots. The Ava made by iRobot is a pedestal that can navigate around a building it has got to know, and onto which various types of “telepresence” packages can be mounted. One application has high-resolution cameras and other sensors designed for diagnostic work, allowing patients to benefit remotely from the skills of specialists in other places. Another application is to move terminals for videoconferencing equipment to where they are needed, allowing conversations to take place on the factory floor or walking down a corridor.

Suitable Technologies, another Willow Garage spin-off, is now also selling a telepresence system, Beam, based on a sort of trundlebot. The move was inspired by seeing the in-house success of a gadget put together by Willow Garage staff that let an engineer living in Indiana participate more fully in the company’s life in Palo Alto. Similarly, Paolo Pirjanian, iRobot’s chief technology officer, who lives in California, uses an Ava system that allows him to be a more or less daily presence at the company’s Massachusetts headquarters; his colleagues say he is “there” much more than he could ever be if he used only phone, e-mail, instant messaging and Skype. When he wants to move from one floor of the building to another, he simply logs out of one Ava 500 and on to one on the next floor; his abandoned chariot will trundle back to its charging point unsupervised.

This is just one of the solutions robot designers have had to find for the lift problem. Aethon’s Tugs are equipped with a wireless system for summoning them. Suitable Technologies recommends different Beams for different floors. The rather charming CoBot at Carnegie Mellon, on the other hand, relies on the kindness of strangers, standing by the lift door displaying a little sign asking passers-by please to press the appropriate button for it.

What self-navigating robots do not do when they want to travel in a lift is use their arms to press the buttons. Arms, and the software that tells a robot what to do with them, are expensive and fallible things. Away from the highly regimented world of the production line, they are worth investing in only if they are vital to the tasks that the robot has, as it were, at hand: if it needs to change something in its environment in the way a human would. And to a large extent, success in practical service robotics has revolved around choosing or designing tasks that do not require changes of that kind.

Both Mr Angle of iRobot and Mr Zini of Aethon are very keen on the word “practical”. Their companies sell systems that solve problems for a lot of people, companies and institutions in a way that would not be possible without robots; but since robots currently have many shortcomings, those systems have to be designed in a way that minimises their responsibilities as well as the need for human supervision. Mr Angle stresses that the right business plan is crucial. His company got well down the road towards developing robots for commercial floor-cleaning before realising it did not have the right model for the business.

A robot by any other name

What gets a robot seen as a robot is, to a large extent, its ability to do different things, of which the arm can be seen as an emblem; businesses which design their solutions in such a way that what the robot does, though crucial, is also highly constrained, may in effect make their robots invisible. In a decade or so trolleys moving around hospital corridors unsupervised will just be trolleys, no more meriting special attention than doors that open automatically when someone approaches them. In Japan such automation, from self-driving cars to camera autofocus, is called robotech, to differentiate it from robots proper. Growth in robotech will allow robotics companies to make money without filling the world with things thought of as robots. They will simply be supplying non-factory automation that works.

This goes far wider than trundlebots in hospitals. For a very different form of constructive invisibility, consider Bot & Dolly, a San Francisco company that uses industrial-robot arms for art projects. The company has developed a way to mesh the software used to control robot arms with the software that visual-effects makers use to plot out what is on a movie screen frame by frame. That enables film-makers such as Alfonso Cuarón, who used Bot & Dolly to spin cameras and lights around Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in “Gravity”, to move a camera along any trajectory they choose without knowing anything about robotics. All they need to know is what they need to see at which angle. How the robot achieves that is not their problem.

Perhaps the most pervasive invisibility will be achieved by robots on the road. Self-driving cars are “hard-core robotics”, says Sebastian Thrun, who masterminded Google’s self-driving-car programme. His former colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, meanwhile, have been working with GM on automating cars. Thanks to all this work, along with a great deal more funding than any academic robotics programme would ever garner, self-driving cars are now a practical possibility.

They are not yet a business (a Google car would still cost far too much to put into production, even if the regulatory framework were to allow its widespread use), and it is not clear how they will turn into one. But although there are technical and business challenges still to be overcome, the idea that within a decade or so cars will be increasingly able to drive themselves is now widely accepted as plausible, even if the details are hazy. And it is a safe bet that the more capable, acceptable and thus widespread self-driving cars become, the less they will be seen as robots and the more as just cars.


A mighty contest

Job destruction by robots could outweigh creation

Mar 29th 2014 | From the print edition

“OUR ROBOTS PUT people to work,” says the rejected slogan still on the whiteboard in Rodney Brooks’s office. It was meant to convey the belief that led Mr Brooks to start Rethink Robotics: that robots in small manufacturing businesses can create new jobs, or at least bring old ones back from China, thus helping to launch an American manufacturing renaissance. But the message could also be read another way: robot overlords forcing human helots into back-breaking labour. Better left unsaid.

Small and medium-sized companies are between 20 and 200 times less likely to use robots than large ones in similar sectors, according to a study carried out by Metra Martech, a consultancy, for the IFR. They could thus become an important market if someone were to offer them the right robots, which would open up new sectors of the economy to the productivity gains that can come with automation. Such robots would still do routine tasks but would be able to switch from one set of tasks to another as required, perhaps every few weeks, perhaps a couple of times a day. They would therefore be heavily dependent on their human fellow workers to set them up and get them going.

Rethink reckons it has the right robot for the job in Baxter, a two-armed quasi-humanoid (it cannot move itself) that can be easily adapted to a number of packaging and assembly tasks. It embodies a lot of innovative technology. The joints of its arms use a relatively new gizmo called a series elastic actuator which gives the robot’s software control over the amount of force that they exert at any given time, rather than just their location in space (an innovation pioneered by Mr Pratt, now running robotics at DARPA). This makes Baxter very safe to be around; if it meets unexpected resistance from, say, the head of a human worker, it will stop before any harm is done.

Baxter also has a splendidly intuitive programming interface. By grasping Baxter’s wrists, an operator can easily take it through new movements; the robot’s “face”—a screen with animated eyes which show what Baxter is “paying attention to”, among other things—helps gauge the success of the programming. Mike Fair of Rethink says it took him just a couple of hours to teach Baxter to make a cup of coffee using a kitchen coffee-maker, and he did not have to touch a computer keyboard. That all this cleverness could be put into a machine that sells for just $25,000 has amazed many of Mr Brooks’s former colleagues in academia.

However, Baxter has not taken the market by storm, perhaps in part because it started off rather imprecise in its movements (a software upgrade, Mr Brooks says, has improved precision a lot). Being designed for a market that almost by definition barely knows it wants such a thing has not made life any easier. Rethink laid off some workers last December and is trying harder to sell Baxter to robotics researchers. One former colleague of Mr Brooks’s sees this as a potentially dangerous splitting of the company’s attention: if Baxter is to succeed as a practical robot, the company should concentrate on the robot’s industrial users.

More broadly, though, the idea that robots are no longer the preserve of manufacturers with capital budgets in the tens of millions of dollars is taking root, alongside the idea that such robots offer industrial countries a way of keeping, or winning back, jobs that would otherwise be carried out in places where labour is a lot cheaper. Universal Robots, which has less nifty technology than Rethink but perhaps a more down-to-earth approach to the market, is taken seriously in Denmark in part because Danish workers are among the most expensive in the world and will keep their jobs, or find new ones, only by becoming ever more productive. Integrating ever more user-friendly robots into the human teams on the factory and workshop floor could offer such productivity gains, especially when the strengths of the robots are used to the full—for example, when robot precision is used to guide work carried out by human hands.

Is this time different?

Robot-makers see their wares as a way of creating employment, both by allowing companies to make existing products more efficiently and by enabling them to manufacture new things that could not be made in any other way, such as ever more precisely engineered electronics and cars, not to mention films like “Gravity”. Others fear that their net effect will be to destroy a lot of jobs, and indeed that they may already be doing so. Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, has seen a big change of heart about such technological unemployment in his discipline recently. The received wisdom used to be that although new technologies put some workers out of jobs, the extra wealth they generated increased consumption and thus created jobs elsewhere. Now many economists are taking the short- to medium-term risk to jobs far more seriously, and some think the potential scale of change may be huge. Mr Thrun draws a parallel with employment in agriculture, which accounted for almost all jobs in the pre-modern era but has since shrunk to just 2% of the workforce. The advent of robots will have a similar effect, he predicts, but over a much shorter period. Even so, he is sure that human ingenuity will generate new jobs, just as it created vast new industries to counteract the decline in agricultural employment.

Technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both at MIT, also have high hopes for the long-term effect of robots and similar technologies. But in a recent book, “The Second Machine Age”, they argue that technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades. They reckon that innovation has speeded up a lot in the past few years and will continue at this pace, for three reasons: the exponential growth in computing power; the progressive digitisation of things that people work with, from maps to legal texts to spreadsheets; and the opportunities for innovators to combine an ever-growing stock of things, ideas and processes into ever more new products and services.

Between them, these trends might continue to “hollow out” labour markets in developed countries and, soon enough, developing ones, as more and more jobs requiring medium levels of skill are automated away. This helps explain, the authors argue, why the benefits of economic growth increasingly accrue to a small group of highly paid people, citing in evidence the lack of growth in America’s median wage and the decline in workforce participation. A paper by Jeffrey Sachs and Lawrence Kotlikoff highlights the worrying possibility that this shift could be self-perpetuating: if automation absorbs jobs previously reserved for young people, who have not yet had time to build up skills, it will stop them from acquiring those skills, and its destructive effects will reverberate down the years.

There is some cause for scepticism. If new technology is eating jobs, one might expect it to show up more clearly in productivity figures, which are not changing much—though it is possible that those figures fail to pick up the benefits of, say, the easier availability of a much wider range of entertainment through the internet. The rise in the number of women in the workforce and the effects of globalisation have also had an effect on the working prospects of American men.

That said, even if it turned out that technology was not the problem, the fact that people worry about technology and that they project their technological worries onto robots means that robots would be blamed. In truth, a noticeable robot presence in a workplace may be a good indicator that human employment, too, is flourishing there; it shows that the process is worth investing in. Even in a heavily robotised modern car factory such as the one which builds Tesla’s electric cars—perhaps the most advanced such workplace in the world—there are still a lot of human workers to be seen.

“Invisible” robots, such as Aethon’s Tugs, look like more pernicious job eaters, ready to take over much of the work that hospital porters do today. Mr Thrun offers Kiva’s warehouse robots as an example of a similar labour-replacing system. And software will take over a lot of the tasks carried out by humans sitting in front of screens. In a recent study of the susceptibility of jobs to computerisation carried out by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University, many of the job categories at greatest risk involved hardly any manual labour at all.

Given the doornail dumbness of machines, how can they take over so many moderately skilled jobs? One of the answers is that if you have enough doornails and enough data, there are ways of simulating smartness that are proving good enough to solve an ever greater range of problems, and that problems restricted to the world of data are much more tractable than those that require manipulating things in the real world.

Andrew Ng of Stanford is a pioneer and advocate of this sort of “machine learning”, a product of the trends towards ever cheaper computing power and ever more widespread digitisation that Mr Brynjolfsson and Mr McAfee describe. Working with Google, Mr Ng came up with a system that, using 16,000 processors to look at a significant fraction of a video on YouTube, came to “recognise” cats with no prior knowledge that there was such a thing. Google uses related approaches to tackle a number of more practical problems, such as machine translation and voice recognition. It would be surprising if it did not apply the same sort of thinking to its new acquisitions in robotics, whether they are used in manufacturing, in services or for that matter in agriculture or construction.

To work, perchance to play

Managing changing tasks in a changing world means that many workplaces will still need humans, but as workplaces become more efficient the number of people employed will shrink in the long run. William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, has shown that even though the world has become much better lit in an ever-widening variety of ways over the past few centuries, the number of people who provide the ever better lighting has declined. There is, in the end, only so much light that people can consume. Many other human needs, too, can probably be satisfied with less labour in the future, though that will take time.

Whether this job attrition will be too quick to allow for the creation of new jobs in other sectors of the economy (if, indeed, there are sectors that can continue to grow without limit) is impossible to say, not least because it depends on how well society as a whole adapts through continuing education and other investments. It is even conceivable that the fruits of greater productivity will be distributed so as to allow people to work less and spend more time doing other things. After all, the humour in the double meaning of the message that “Our robots put people to work” depends on understanding that people do not necessarily want to work, if they have better things to do.


Domestic service robots

Seal of approval

A robot around the house doesn’t just have to be handy. It has to be likeable too

Mar 29th 2014 | From the print edition

WHEN TAKANORI SHIBATA began working on robots in the early 1990s, he had something practical in mind, perhaps to help the elderly with their daily chores. But he soon realised that robots were not really able to do anything useful, so he decided to make a robot that did not even try—but that could nevertheless deliver real benefits.

The result of his labours, Paro, has been in development since 1998. It is 57cm long and looks like a baby harp seal. Thanks to an array of sub-skin sensors, it responds amiably to stroking; and though it cannot walk, it can turn its head at the sound of a human voice and tell one voice from another. It is a comforting and gentle presence in your arms, on your lap or on a table top, where it gives the impression of following a conversation. The best thing about it is that it seems to be helping in the care of people with dementia and other health problems.

You could see Paro as a very well-designed $5,000 pet that will never turn on the person holding it, and will never be hurt if its master flies into a rage. It is as happy in one lap as the next, needs no house-training, can be easily washed and will not die. This makes it a much more practical proposition to have in a nursing home or hospital than a live pet. It is used in such homes in Japan, in parts of Europe and in America. As well as simply making people happy—no mean goal—it can act as a source of reassurance and calm. People with Alzheimer’s often suffer from “sundowning”—a distressed urge to wander that comes on towards the end of the afternoon. Mr Shibata has found that a seal in the arms tends to reduce such wandering, which means fewer falls. Experience in Italy, Denmark and America indicates that care homes equipped with Paro need less medication for their residents. Larger trials now under way in Australia should establish whether this and other benefits can be provided simply by a soft toy, or whether Paro’s ability to interact with the world makes a clinical difference.

If Paro proves to be more useful than a plush animal, there is a huge market for it. Akifumi Kitashima, who works on Japan’s robotics strategy at the Ministry for the Economy, Trade and Industry, points out that in 2025 Japan will have 10.7m more elderly people than it did in 2005. Though Japan is ageing particularly quickly, a lot of the rest of the world is on a similar course. Some will long remain spry; most will eventually need care.

Looking after old people in homes might become easier with robots, be they mood enhancers like Paro or something more practical that can help careworkers lift and reposition their charges (Mr Kitashima says 70% of carers have bad backs). Yoshiyuki Sankai, perhaps Japan’s best-known robotics entrepreneur, has set up a company called Cyberdyne to make wearable systems that help people walk and lift things by adding artificial strength to their limbs.

Robots may also make it possible for old people to stay independent in their own homes for longer. Mr Angle says this is iRobot’s “long-term guiding star”, towards which the Roomba is a small step. Mr Gupta at the NSF thinks that general-purpose home-help robots would be a big advance which, given a push, could be achieved in a couple of decades (though that, he stresses, is his own view, not the foundation’s). Mr Thrun reckons it could be done more quickly. Mr Ng points out that if you get a graduate student to teleoperate a PR2 robot, it can already do more or less everything a home-help robot might be required to do, so all that is needed is better software and more processing power, both of which are becoming ever more easily available.

Cloud robotics can probably provide much of the required software. Mr Pratt says that if there were dramatic performance improvements in the finals of the DRC, he would expect them to come from the cloud. But specific robot hardware will need upgrading, too. No robot hand yet comes close to the utility of the human hand. Tasks that require feedback in terms of force and fit—like putting a plug into a socket—remain particularly hard for robots, and there are a lot of such tasks around a house. General technological progress will not help; the only way to find a solution to this sort of problem is to work specifically on it.

Even more important will be interfaces to tell the robots what to do. Take-me-by-the-wrist Baxter, stroke-me Paro and the film-enabling industrial arms of Bot & Dolly, all very different from each other, show that interfaces can matter just as much as any other technological advance. Tobias Kinnebrew, of Bot & Dolly, thinks that new interfaces could open up markets and applications of robotics in all sorts of fields, and might do so surprisingly quickly.

Needing help with something can engender affection. People do not resent Paro’s need to be stroked; it is one of the things they like about it

Voice would be an obvious choice, but it has its drawbacks: give a robot a voice, says Mr Hassan, and the user will think it is smart. An interface that allows the robot to be dumb and the user not to care might be preferable. Indeed, small errors can be endearing, and needing help with something can engender affection. People do not resent Paro’s need to be stroked; it is one of the things they like about it. CoBot’s need for help with the lifts at Carnegie Mellon makes people warm to it, though being pestered for help by random robots in offices and shopping malls would probably not work so well. But if the interface is properly designed, teaching a robot home help to do the job better might make it more welcome.

It may also be a good idea to let the robots turn for help to people other than those they are working for. As Mr Goldberg at Berkeley points out, the cloud does not just contain computers; it provides access to a lot of humans, too. One of the things that make Aethon’s Tugs a success in hospitals is that the company’s headquarters has a small but always staffed help desk which deals with queries from robots. If one gets stuck or lost, a remote operator can look through its eyes, check its logs and sort things out before the hospital concerned even becomes aware that anything is wrong. If similar support could be provided for robot home helps, the occasional mistake might not matter.

If the robot can call on a help desk, it can communicate with other people too, perhaps providing a way for friends and relatives to stay in touch. Some home-automation products already allow a degree of monitoring, notes Oz Chambers of Carnegie Mellon’s Quality of Life Technology Centre, but what they offer leaves much to be desired. It makes the adult offspring feel greater responsibility—which they often cannot exercise—rather than giving them reassurance. The elderly, for their part, can feel snooped upon. A robot with a defined presence in the house might make a better intermediary.

What matters, as iRobot and other practically minded companies have learned, is not so much having robots but having a business model that does a job, be it washing the dishes, checking that medication is being taken or providing telepresence. Producing something reliable and likeable that can be sold in large numbers and does not get its makers sued may prove a lot more difficult than simply developing the required robotic skills, but not impossible. To be sure, robots will not spread as quickly or relentlessly as mobile phones have done. Over a decade they may not achieve much. Over a century, though, they could turn everyday life upside down.


That thou art mindful of him

Robots are as good, or as bad, as the people who make them

Mar 29th 2014 | From the print edition

ISAAC ASIMOV WAS wrong to think that the laws of robotics would be hard-wired into every robot brain. He was right, though, to think that robots would need regulation, and that such regulation would cause heated debate on the role that they might play.

In many of the areas touched on by this special report, laws and regulations will be crucial to the way that markets for robots develop. The uptake of industrial robots has always been constrained by health-and-safety considerations. Autonomy for lethal military robots remains a serious concern, soon to be discussed at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva. The spread of civilian drones will depend on freeing up airspace, along with bandwidth for their control. The advent of self-driving cars opens up all sorts of legal and regulatory issues.

As Mr Gupta of the NSF points out, manufacturers’ technical ability to produce robots that can help in the home might easily outrun their capacity to deal with the resulting liability issues, especially if the robots operate in the homes of elderly people with cognitive difficulties. Sweet little Paro, rated as a consumer product in some places, is regulated in others.

Denmark’s Council of Ethics—an advisory rather than a regulatory body—has looked at how acceptable it is for robots to be designed to fool people into thinking that they have feelings. The council decided that such robots were not a problem in themselves, but that carers responsible for people who might be easily fooled had to be vigilant in safeguarding the dignity of their charges. That seems to be a good general principle.

Robots have no will of their own; they are machines designed for an end, and it is that end which regulators need to concentrate on. In “Das Kapital”, Karl Marx argued that fetishising money and commodities as “figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race” blinds people to the social relationships built into the world of trade and economics. Subsequent generations have noted that technology is often similarly fetishised. Robots could serve as the nec plus ultra of this fetishisation, forms of capital seemingly so “endowed with a life of their own” that their nature as unfeeling mechanisms built for particular purposes is hard to lay bare. But that is what lawmakers, along with those seeking to make money out of practical robots, must learn to do.

In a weapons system, the precise level of autonomy is probably less important than the discrimination and care with which the person responsible for the system handles it. If a civilian drone is used as a tool by a Peeping Tom, it is the peeping, not the drone, that should be penalised.

Means and ends

Keeping the ends rather the means in mind, though, will be hard—and in everyday life perhaps unnecessary. The effort it takes not to anthropomorphise robots will often not be worth making. Most of the people who buy iRobot’s Roombas, says Colin Angle, tell the sales staff that they are just buying a machine to clean the floor; it may be a nifty machine, but they wouldn’t go as far as, say, giving it a pet name. Yet some 80% of owners go on to do just that.

It may be that, in time, such charms in robots wear off and they become part of the scenery. But as quickly as that happens, robots with even richer repertoires of behaviour will arrive to engage humans anew.

Robots will get better at seeing things, manipulating things and moving things around, just as they have got better at walking. When Japanese engineers first started working seriously on walking robots in the 1980s, there weren’t any. Now Honda’s ASIMO can walk quite well, as can other humanoid robots. AIST’s Mr Kajita reckons that within 20 years they may do it as well as people. Others expect it to take longer; no one rules it out.

And they will continue to get better beyond that. Man may be the measure of many things, but not of the ultimate capabilities of robots—or, to put fetishisation aside, the ultimate capabilities of humans working together, with and through robots, to enhance their abilities. Clearly there will be limits to the things robots can do. But such limits are not yet in sight.

The future, like “technology” and “robots”, is by its nature an ill-defined residue of hope or fear left behind when the seamlessly working, unconsciously accepted and apparently inevitable parts of the world are taken out of the picture. Sometimes, in some ways, it seems to be already present: there are robots doing the bidding of scientists on the surface of Mars right now. Sometimes it feels permanently deferred, with dreams of progress borne back ceaselessly into the past. But for all its strangeness and contradiction, we already know its natives. They are coming to work and play among us in ever greater numbers.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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