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March of the Robots

by Wilson da Silva 11 months ago in Pop Culture · updated 10 months ago
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Robots are becoming increasingly useful. And they’re arriving just in time to save us from an ageing workforce.

The evolution of robots [Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock]

RATHER THAN be worried that robots will take our jobs over the next 20 years, we should be more afraid there won’t be enough robots. That’s the prediction made by roboticist and serial entrepreneur Rodney Brooks.

The pioneering Australian, founder of iRobot — the Boston-based billion-dollar company which has sold more than 30 million robots worldwide (including the Roomba vacuum cleaner and the Packbot bomb disposal rovers) — says the world is on the verge of a major shift that will see the world’s robot population explode into every facet of life.

It’s being driven by dramatic recent advances in artificial intelligence and robot vision, cheap but very fast computing, coupled with widespread Wi-Fi access and a deluge of big data, all which help robots access knowledge and make sense of their world.

“I’m not worried about them taking jobs, I’m worried we’re not going to have enough smart robots to help us when we’re old and infirm,” says Brooks, who made his name as a maverick of robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’ll all be tech savvy and we’ll want to retain our independence … and we’ll want to stay in our homes longer.”

He points to the coming demographic bulge of ageing baby boomers who will live longer and need care, but there won’t be enough people of working age to care for them. The percentage of working age adults in the U.S. and Europe, which had been stable at around 80% 50 years, is now rapidly falling: forecast to reach 69% in the U.S. and 64% in Europe by 2050. Even in China it will drop to 67% by then.

To tackle this, we’ll need ‘social robots’, machines that interact with us using social cues and speech. Luckily, the technology is arriving just the right time. And Brooks has helped usher them in: in 2008, he and former MIT colleague Ann Whittaker co-founded Rethink Robotics with venture capital from Goldman Sachs and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, among others.

Rethink Robotics’s Baxter collaborative robot [Rethink Robotics]

Rethink created a ‘collaborative robot’ that could safely work elbow to elbow with people and respond in ways they understand: like Baxter, which requires no programming, learns on the job as humans do. If you want it to pick an item from a conveyor belt, scan it and place it with others in a box, you grasp its mechanical hand and guide it through the entire routine.

Aimed at small to medium businesses for whom robots had been prohibitively expensive, and priced at an affordable US$22,000, you have to admit that Baxter is kinda cute too: its ‘face’ is a digital screen, dominated by big, expressive cartoon eyes. When its sonar detects someone entering a room, it turns and looks at them, raising its virtual eyebrows. When Baxter picks something up, it looks at the arm it’s about to move, signalling to co-workers what it’s going to do. When Baxter is confused, it raises a virtual eyebrow and shrugs.

Rethink was acquired by German automation specialist Hahn Group and relaunched as Rethink Robotics GmbH. In 2019, it released the new Sawyer BLACK Edition robot, designed for processes that were previously difficult to automate, like assembly, loading and unloading, circuit board testing, metal fabrication, injection moulding, and packaging.

While collaborative robots aren’t yet up to the task of carrying groceries to your car or taking out the rubbish, it’s only a matter of time. Progress is coming in leaps and bounds, and the field has surprising goals (literally), like having robots play — and beat — the winners of the FIFA World Cup by 2050. Known as RoboCup, the annual robot championships — won five times by Australia’s University of New South Wales — attracts 3,500 participants from 45 countries who compete across 16 categories, all aimed at advancing artificial intelligence and robotics and creating squads of android soccer champions.

Even before then, artificial intelligence, or AI, will become ubiquitous. “Within a decade, AI will become the operating system of all our connected devices,” says Toby Walsh, a leading AI researcher at University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “Apps like Siri and Cortana will morph into the way we interact with the connected world. It’ll be the way we interact with our cars, fridges, central heating system and front door. We will be living in an always-on world.”

Some of that future is already evident in the Port of Brisbane, where 27 giant robots — 10 metres tall and weighing 60 tonnes — scramble to and fro at lighting speed in what is the world’s first fully automated marine container terminal. The eight-wheel behemoths, known as AutoStrads, bestride shipping containers and move them around the container terminal entirely autonomously, using radar, high precision GPS. And they do so 24/7, placing containers into position with better than 2cm accuracy.

AutoStrads are the creation of Hugh Durrant-Whyte, who led much of their development at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney. Considered one of the world’s foremost innovators in field robotics, he was also behind the first two mines in the world to move all their ore using robot trucks. The lumbering giants are now used by mining giants Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue Metals in Australia.

Three AutoStrad robots at work at the Brisbane Terminal [Kalmar]

“Hugh has been a pioneer in fielding robots in the wild,” says Walsh. “He is a big name internationally in field robotics.”

A high-profile player in helping robots see and understand their environment is Peter Corke, director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. His team have created robotic systems for mining, aerial and underwater applications, and are currently developing ‘AgBots’, or agricultural robots. AgBot II, a four-wheeled rover, has been autonomously seeding, weeding and fertilising crops in trials begun last year, and indications are that it can reduce the cost of energy, labour and chemical by up to 40%.

Another notable Australian is Bob Williamson, chief scientist of Data61, the information technology division of Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO. He wields influence in ‘machine learning’, a field of AI where computers develop the ability to learn without being programmed, teaching themselves to grow and change as they are exposed to new data.

This is a hot area of research, propelling everything from self-driving cars to Netflix recommendations. And it has spawned stunning advances, such as the 4–1 victory by AlphaGo program over world champion Go player Lee Sedol last year. AlphaGo’s algorithm relies on a neural network that learned the game itself, training extensively by playing humans and studying past games. A more general program, AlphaZero, beat the most powerful programs playing chess and shogi (or Japanese chess) after a few days of play against itself using reinforcement learning. In 2020, DeepMind made significant advances in the problem of protein folding. It was created by DeepMind Technologies, a secretive British artificial intelligence company Google acquired in 2014 for US$650 million.

Machine learning will have a huge impact on business and society, as it allows computers to dive into oceans of big data and find valuable patterns impossible for humans to discern. But there’s still “an awful lot of black art” in the discipline, says Williamson: each algorithm is developed from scratch. “There’s very few standards. You can’t share anything, there’s always different systems.”

Hugh Durrant-Whyte showing off some of his team’s creations [CEBIT Australia]

His Herculean ambition is to create standards for machine learning that would allow it to be used across systems, accelerating advances by working off a common, but robust, base. “This is a real challenge for the community, but no one’s cracked it yet.”

But when it comes to social robots, there is still a lot of learn, but Mary-Anne Williams is pushing forward. A leading authority on the AI fields of ‘knowledge representation and reasoning’, she is Director of the Magic Lab at the University of Technology Sydney, where she explores how robot can develop social intelligence in dealings with humans, with a goal to design autonomous technologies that can learn, adapt and collaborate with people.

“Robots of tomorrow will be social like Rosie of the Jetsons and CP3O in Star Wars,” says Williams. “They will understand human emotion and be able to interact with people, helping them be more productive and live happier, healthier lives.”

Brooks agrees, and he believes the fear that robots are going to take away all the jobs is overplayed. “Over time — and I’m talking decades — many jobs will be replaced by robots. But robots aren’t going to be good enough to do everything that people do by any means.”

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About the author

Wilson da Silva

Wilson da Silva is a science journalist in Sydney | |

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