|Robot from the 2009 film Terminator Salvation.|
Robots expected to run half of Japan by 2035
Data analysts Nomura Research Institute (NRI), led by researcher Yumi Wakao, figure that within the next 20 years, nearly half of all jobs in Japan could be accomplished by robots. Working with Professor Michael Osborne from Oxford University, who had previously investigated the same matter in both the US and UK, the NRI team examined more than 600 jobs and found that "up to 49 percent of jobs could be replaced by computer systems," according to Wakao.
The team looked at how likely each position could be automated, based on the degree of creativity required. That means jobs like operating helpdesks, delivering goods or agricultural labor are all highly susceptible to computerization while writing, teaching and doing whatever it is that Shingy does probably aren't being taken over by computers any time soon. The NRI's results are higher than what Osborne figured for the US (47 percent automation) and the UK (35 percent). "However, this is only a hypothetical technical calculation," Wakao added. "It doesn't take into account social factors." For their part, many Japanese citizens have reportedly embraced the coming robo-revolution as it simultaneously relieves the economic pressure of the nation's rapidly-aging population while freeing the workforce to pursue more creative (and rewarding) careers. - Engadget.
WATCH: Rescue bots and eerie androids draw crowds to Japan’s robot expo.
A robot teaching itself to walk like a human toddler
Source: UC Berkeley Robot Learning Lab
Will robots soon be able to teach themselves ... everything?
There's a robot in California teaching itself to walk. Its name is Darwin, and like a toddler, it teeters back and forth in a UC Berkeley lab, trying and falling, and then trying again before getting it right. But it's not actually Darwin doing all this. It's a neural network designed to mimic the human brain.
Darwin's baby steps speak to what many researchers believe will be the greatest leap in robotics — a kind of general machine learning that allows robots to adapt to new situations rather than respond to narrow programming.
Developed by Pieter Abbeel and his team at UC Berkeley's Robot Learning Lab, the neural network that allows Darwin to learn is not programmed to perform any specific functions, like walking or climbing stairs. The team is using what's called "reinforcement learning" to try and make the robots adapt to situations as a human child would.
Like a child's brain, reinforcement technology invokes the trial-and-error process.
"Imagine learning a new skill, like how to ride a bike," said John Schulman, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at UC Berkeley in Abbeel's group. You're going to fall a lot, but then, "after some practice, you figure it out."
Robots are pretty good at walking on flat ground, but anytime a variable is introduced, like a step or a slope, they often can't adapt.
Earlier this year, at the DARPA Robotics Challenge, some of the most high-tech robots in the world competed through a set of obstacles designed to mimic real-world disaster situations, like Fukushima. Nearly all of them failed, prompting a parade of GIFs on the Internet depicting falling robots.
For typically structured settings, like in factories, robots are programmed to repeat the same function over and over again, said Sergey Levine, another scientist working with Abbeel. For complex environments that might change, they need to be more sophisticated and able to adapt, Levine said.
To enable the robots to adapt, the team at UC Berkeley is developing technology that doesn't address specific behaviors.
"We've started looking at much less restrictive representations," Levine said. "We are basically not telling the robot anything about doing the task." Instead, they are using large neural networks that are general purpose. "It's kind of like the difference between a circuit built for one specific job," he explained, "and a general-purpose computer."
This approach enables the team to explore other functionalities, as well.
"There's very little in these algorithms that's specific to [locomotion]," Levine said. "In reality, these methods are really designed from the ground up to be general." They aren't aimed at walking, or grasping, or doing the dishes — but can be applied to all of those things.
Less restrictive technology is also apt to make robots cheaper to build.
"Right now if, for example, you have a company that builds robots, for every piece of hardware that you build, you also have to figure out how you are going to manually control it," Levine said. If a robot can learn on its own, the manual inputs needed for it to function would be fewer, thereby making it less costly to make.
In real scenarios, it's really difficult to anticipate every situation in advance, and it's nearly impossible to program for every situation, said Martial Hebert, a professor at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. "The grand challenge is to be able to teach robots how to do end-to-end tasks."
In an ideal world, a robot will be able to learn simply by demonstration, with no need for expensive, time-consuming programming, Herbert said, adding, "It will be much easier to configure them," he said.
That, in turn, could help lower the purchase price for robots, making them accessible to everyday consumers — which right now they aren't. Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot, used by several DARPA teams in the Challenge, carries a price tag of over $1 million.
Bringing Star Wars' C-3PO to Earth
"To get robots into our everyday environments will require equipping them with the ability to deal with a very large range of variation," Abbeel said. "My belief is that the most practical way to equip robots with such skills is to equip them with the ability to learn."
The scientists at UC Berkeley hope to move closer to a world where robots are autonomous, nimbly performing many functions typically done by humans. In the future, robots may be able to provide care for the elderly, conduct rescue efforts, clean up in disaster areas and even deliver mail, Schulman said.
There are still many situations that will need remote human control, like for operations that need to be executed very precisely, Hebert said. But the recent research suggests a new direction for the robotics field. "It's moving away from pre-programming of robots and toward robots that are more and more able to generalize from example," he said.
Abbeel's team is attempting to flesh out this shift. "More work is necessary to move these results from simulation to the real world, but I think eventually this research will have a very big impact on robotics," Schulman said. "It might be the path to actual humanoid robots, like Star Wars' C-3PO." - CNBC.
As Aging Population Grows, So Do Robotic Health Aides
| Dr. Naira Hovakimyan of the University of Illinois with a small drone that may eventually be able to carry out household tasks, |
like retrieving a bottle of medicine, for older adults. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
Naira Hovakimyan has an idea: drones.
The University of Illinois roboticist recently received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the idea of designing small autonomous drones to perform simple household chores, like retrieving a bottle of medicine from another room. Dr. Hovakimyan acknowledged that the idea might seem off-putting to many, but she believes that drones will not only be safe, but will become an everyday fixture in elder care within a decade or two.
“I’m convinced that within 20 years drones will be today’s cellphones,” she said.
Her research is just one example of many approaches being studied to use technology to help aging people.
Even though fully functioning robot caregivers may be a long way off, roboticists and physicians predict that a new wave of advances in computerized, robotic and Internet-connected technologies will be available in coming years to help older adults stay at home longer.
“Loneliness is at epidemic levels among elders in the U.S. today,” said Juliet Holt Klinger, senior director of dementia care and programs at Brookdale Senior Living, one of the nation’s largest providers of assisted living and home care.
Brookdale is using a variety of Internet-connected services to help aging clients stay more closely connected with family and friends. Ms. Holt Klinger said there was growing evidence that staying connected, even electronically, offsets the cognitive decline associated with aging. “We have story after story of reconnection with families through Skype,” she added.
For all the promising ideas, however, skeptics also note that many ideas are “technologies looking for a solution” that inevitably fail the test of practicality.
“We all get really excited on the upside, and then we go through this trough of disillusionment,” said Laurie Orlov, a business analyst who began the Aging in Place Technology Watch blog in 2008.
| A drone being demonstrated at a University of Illinois lab. Dr. Hovakimyan refers to the drones as “Bibbidi Bobbidi Bots” to make|
them seem less intimidating. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
Even so, examples of robotic and artificial-intelligence-derived technologies that will be commercially available in the next decade include intelligent walkers, smart pendants that track falls and “wandering,” room and home sensors that monitor health status, balancing aids, virtual and robotic electronic companions, and even drones.
In her lab, Dr. Hovakimyan has begun experimenting with small and large drones.
She refers to them as “Bibbidi Bobbidi Bots,” borrowing a phrase from the “Cinderella” movie, to make them seem less intimidating. Last month, in the Nicer Robotics laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers began experimenting with an Oculus Rift virtual reality viewer to show people how it might feel to be close to a small drone. She believes that drones could ultimately be used to perform all manner of household chores, like reaching under a table to grab an object, cleaning chandeliers and weeding the lawn.
Many others are trying to devise solutions, as well. In a crowded four-room laboratory in South Seattle, the former Microsoft software designer and executive Tandy Trower is experimenting with a four-foot-tall rolling robot he calls Robby. With cameras, radar, microphone, speaker, a tablet interface and a movable tray, Robby may someday be able to serve as a mobile companion and even perform some light chores.
Mr. Trower said the robot, now a prototype in his Hoaloha Robotics laboratory, would be able to monitor the health of its human companion and assist with tasks like keeping track of medicines. Its screen could also be used for video conferences with physicians and other health care providers.
He said that the science-fiction future of elder-care robots is closer than many people believe.
“Rather than seeing the train in the distance, we’re seeing the light shining in our face right now,” he said.
Toyota Motor Corp. said last month that it would spend $1 billion to establish a new research laboratory adjacent to Stanford University to focus on artificial intelligence, underscoring the company’s view that it should be added to cars to make human drivers safer rather than to replace them. The hope is that such technologies will make it possible for aging people to drive safely longer.
“Driver assistance will turn cars into elder-care robots in a very positive sense,” said Rodney Brooks, a pioneering roboticist and a former director of the M.I.T. Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “In the United States, when you can’t drive any longer, you’ve lost your independence.”
The need for such technology will grow sharply, given the broad demographic shifts sweeping through the world’s population.
An aging population will place enormous burdens on the world’s health care system by 2050, according to demographers. Already, for the first time in history, 14 percent of the world’s population is older than 65, a sharp contrast with the 9.1 percent of the population that is less than 5 years old.
Globally, the number of people 60 and over is expected to more than double by 2050 and triple by 2100. The number of people 80 and above is expected to double by 2050 and increase more than sevenfold by the end of the century.
Despite a patchwork of research and some commercial products, the United States appears to be lagging Japan and Europe in developing solutions.
“In both Japan and Europe, it seems that government is more attuned to the potential of technology for aging populations,” said Jeffrey A. Kaye, a neurologist at Oregon Health & Science University who focuses on technologies for the aging.
China reached out more than a decade ago to Eric Dishman, an Intel scientist who has focused on developing technologies to assist older adults.
“Now I have a team in China working with third parties, collaborating on their Age Friendly City Initiative,” Mr. Dishman said. That has led to the installation of sensors in homes to monitor as many as 100,000 people.
The Intel China project uses so-called machine-learning techniques, charting patterns of behavior for caregivers.
“Your daily patterns are a vital sign,” Mr. Dishman said.
In addition to smart-home sensors and mobile robots, there are a variety of other efforts to add stationary robots to provide everything from coaching to communications to companionship.
Catalia Health, a San Francisco-based design company, has introduced the Mabu personal health care companion, an interactive robot about the size of a coffeepot. The system, which has a cartoonish form, listens and speaks and holds a touch-tablet interface. It is designed to act both as a health care coach and to provide a way to stay in touch with doctor’s offices and pharmacies.
“My approach is, ‘Here are the challenges we see in health care. What is the right technology?’” said Cory Kidd, chief executive of the start-up firm. “Robots happen to be great for helping with behavior.”
A more profound question is whether robots or virtual assistants, in tandem with Internet communications, can help forestall the effects of aging, like dementia. Isolation is one of the most vexing problems for older adults, and there is evidence that human contact can postpone intellectual decline.
A study published last summer in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that a group of both healthy and mildly cognitively impaired people in their 70s and 80s who engaged in face-to-face daily online conversations for six weeks showed significant improvements in cognitive skills compared with a control group.
“It is not possible to simply tell people to go out and get more friends, so the idea here was to provide a meaningful and frequent dose of social engagement,” said Dr. Kaye, the Oregon Health & Science neurologist, who helped organize the study.
Internet, tablet and smartphone systems such as grandPad, a simplified tablet for older adults, and CareAngel, a telephone system to help younger family members stay connected, are emerging to help with care and staving off isolation.
The ultimate test for all these ideas will be whether people will want to use them.
At the Aging 2.0 Conference last month in San Francisco, which focused on new elder-care technologies, Cynthia Breazeal, an M.I.T. Media Lab roboticist, showed off Jibo, an Internet-connected tabletop robot with a round swiveling screen that portrays a friendly robotic face.
The concept did not thrill everyone in the large lunchtime audience.
During a question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation, a 91-year-old woman said, “If Jibo were my last friend, I would be very depressed.” - NY Times.