Wednesday, May 02, 2012

April 2012 Early Indications: The Robotic Moment

Everywhere I look, it seems, all I see are robots. Not literally, but while the Apple narrative consumes lots of headline space, there's an incredible surge in innovation in the field of "unboxed computing." If we take the analogy of computers as brains VERY loosely, then the body metaphor is being built out: hydraulics, motors, and actuators as muscles, with sensors as eyes and ears. A robot can be thought of as a computer moving in three dimensions and interacting with the world through more than a keyboard and mouse.

Many of these developments have been in the works for a long time; Boston Dynamics (about which more in a moment) was founded 20 years ago. At the same time, the pace of progress can be dizzying: the DARPA autonomous vehicle grand challenge in 2004 saw only minimal, partial success, while in 2005 5 vehicles completed the course and now only 6-plus years later, Google's self-driving cars are pushing 200,000 miles of testing on public roads. I think these individual stories coalesce into something very big indeed:

-Self-driving cars got a lot of attention as Google turned up the publicity engine last fall. Nevada even has a distinctive license plate for such vehicles, and the Department of Defense has committed to using autonomous vehicles on land, under the sea, and in the air. In fact, the critical role of drone aircraft in the Obama administration's foreign policy -- without much public debate or legal clarity -- may be one of the signature facts of this presidency.

-Amazon first bought Zappos, one of Kiva Robotics' major customers, in 2009, then earlier this year, purchased the MIT spinout itself for $775 million. Jeff Bezos has been called many things, but "slow" and "clueless" aren't usually on the list.

-Medical robotics is a huge area all by itself. Stock-watchers know about Intuitive Surgical's otherworldly share price given the robust market for its operating room systems, but mind-operated prosthetics, for example, will also likely become increasingly common, particularly given how many military amputees are young and otherwise strong.

-One promising development is the advancement of the Robot Operating System, an open-source effort. The University of Washington has shipped seven identical Raven surgical robots across the country to serve as a common research platform. And at Willow Garage in Palo Alto, the Personal Robot 2 uses the same ROS to build robots as teaching platforms for universities and other research entities around the world to build on another shared platform. The PR2 is truly amazing: scroll to the bottom of the page and watch it play billiards.

-Robots for personal care are advancing rapidly. Just as they do with Roomba vacuum cleaners, people can get deeply engaged with an inanimate device. Sherry Turkle of MIT talks with valid concern about how "we expect more from technology and less from each other" in her recent work and robots serve as fascinating screens for human projection.

-Another strand of work is aimed at teaching robots more about those human cues. Heather Knight is an MIT Media Lab alum now affiliated with Carnegie Mellon, and her "social roboticism" includes a humanoid robot that tells jokes and otherwise interacts with its audience.

 -Robots are not just an "it," they can be plural. The GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania has done impressive work with swarms of flying bots that can maintain formation, compensating for the loss of a squadron member by resetting formations on the fly, as it were.

-A common theme is many of these efforts is the future of warfare. It's one thing for an iRobot PackBot to safely disarm explosives, but what happen when bots become suicide bombers? Boston Dynamics has created some incredible machines, largely in the DARPA orbit, including an 18-mph 4-legged cheetah-like creature that may haunt your dreams. As always in the complexity of war, offensive and defensive capabilities could easily become indistinguishable in a given circumstance. Do drone pilots on American soil, or packbots, enjoy Geneva Convention or other status? What happens when a robot is deployed as an instrument of torture?

One implication of this collection of activities is the solidification of DARPA as potentially the company's pre-eminent innovation engine. After the era of Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and other corporate R&D centers, only IBM labs remains as a US industry-based research investment at scale. DARPA, meanwhile, had the Internet explode in public impact about 25 years after launching the ARPAnet in 1969, then saw GPS migrate into invisible ubiquity in everyday life somewhat faster. DARPA's impact through robotics will make a powerful trifecta.

We're seeing incredibly rapid change in social norms, work habits, relationships, and risk as tens of millions of people carry powerful, networked Unix computers on their person. From the other side, packbots, prosthetics, and other robotic extensions redefine human capability still further. The grey area in the middle between man and machine is only going to get more complicated in the coming years. Times will be interesting, for sure.