Four advances in robotic arm technology
- Neuroscientists at Northwestern University in Chicago have developed a robot arm that a monkey can control with its brain.
- A team of scientists from Italy and Sweden have developed the first robot arm with a sense of touch, that can transmit that sense back to the brain (a human brain, this time).
- Scientists at Ishikawa Komuro Lab at the University of Tokyo have created a robotic hand guided by "high speed sensory-motor fusion" using advanced vision and tactile sensors. Watch it dribble a ping-pong ball, spin a pen, grab a grain of rice with tweezers, and fling a cell phone into the air and catch it again, all with superhuman speed and dexterity.
- Finally, engineers at a subsidiary of Panasonic in Kyoto have built a robotic "power loader" exoskeleton (inspired by the one in the movie Aliens), with a "simple, intuitive" force-feedback based control scheme that enables the wearer to effortlessly lift 100 kg. (They plan to be marketing it by 2015).
Think about what will happen when all four of these technologies converge.
I can't wait to become a cyborg! It's such an exciting time to be alive.
(Thanks to Googleshng and Bankuei for some of these links.)
2010 FIRST robotics competition
So my brother-in-law John is the captain of his high school robotics club, Paly Robotics. I'm way jealous! I wish my high school had had a robotics club!
They compete in a yearly tournament called FIRST, which announces a different challenge each year. The one for this year was just announced last Saturday. Here's a video explaining the rules of the game, called "Breakaway". As you can see it's quite a complex game, involving numerous engineering challenges and different possible strategies.
It's even more complicated because the game isn't robot-vs-robot, it's alliance-vs-alliance: each alliance is three robots built and operated by three different teams. The alliances are formed after some qualifying rounds determine an initial ranking: The top eight teams get to pick from the remaining teams in a certain order. From the way John describes it, there's apparently a lot of scheming and diplomacy involved in trying to get on an alliance with a good chance of winning. You can build a generalist robot and try to get a high enough ranking in the qualifiers to be one of the teams that does the picking, or you can build a robot that's really good at some specialty and then lay low in the qualifiers and hope to get picked by the top team, or...
On Saturday I went to visit the Paly Robotics HQ, a garage/warehouse type workspace stuffed full of old video arcade cabinets, metalworking tools, salvage, and scruffy couches. It was a bustling hive of activity as nerdy high school boys badly in need of haircuts brainstormed possible strategies.
John introduced me as his brother-in-law who works at Mozilla and I offered to act as a programming mentor if they need one. The robots operate autonomously for part of the match, but even during the radio-controlled period there is benefit in automating some robot functions to make the operator's job easier. Turns out they had a lot of hardware mentors already but no programming mentor. The robot's brain will be a PowerPC chip and there are APIs to control everything from a C++ program, so it will be fairly standard stuff, not any kind of exotic embedded-chip cross-compilation.
So I might be on call to help teenagers program robots at some point this month. I've always wanted to do something like this!
P.S. To my surprise I see that XKCD just did a comic about the FIRST competition! You can even recognize the field layout in the second panel if you look closely.
Go Team 8!
Video from the first round of the regional qualifiers of this year's FIRST robotics competition. John's team, team 8, is kicking butt! You can see from the video that most of the other teams are still having a lot of trouble getting their robots to work at all; I would guess this is pretty common in the first match of the season, the first time they're playing under real conditions and not in a lab. So Team 8's robot is running around the field almost unopposed scoring goal after goal. I especially like the bit where it folds up its flag to fit through the tunnel.
I blogged before about how I wanted to help the team out by mentoring them with software development. Well, I went in there for a few hours one Saturday and chatted with the software team about what they were doing; and it turned out they really didn't need any help. Two weeks after the game rules were announced they already had a camera on a mount that could scan for the concentric circles marking the goal, automatically swivel itself around to keep facing it, and even judge distance based on the angle of the target above the ground. These kids are smart! Hella smart. They know exactly what they're doing. (I hope some of them will apply for Mozilla internships after they get to college).
Mecha Guan Yu
Thanks to Chris for this link: some Chinese art school students took an old Chinese military truck and converted it, Transformer-style, into a giant metal statue of Guan Yu (roughly speaking, the Chinese god of war).
Robots are gonna take all our jobs
Even if we survive the displacement from rising sea levels, and the food shortages from climate-changed induced droughts and the bee die-off, we can look forward to a future where robots have made us all obsolete:
The robot threat: In the long run, we are telepathic androids | The Economist
Assuming Moore's Law keeps churning away at its normal exponential pace, Mr Drum figures that will happen somewhere around 2040, and it will gradually make our current economic assumptions untenable: most humans will become permanently unemployable since there will be nothing they can do that a robot can't do better and cheaper, which means there will be too few consumers to create demand for the products the robots can create.
Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us? | Mother Jones
Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.
Of course, this disruption is already happening. People are already losing their jobs to "robots", even though they don't look much like science-fiction robots -- they're mostly internet-connected algorithms.
There used to be a job called "video rental store clerk", for example (I used to be one) but Netflix has rendered that job obsolete. There used to be a job called travel agent, but Expedia and other airline-search websites eliminated that. And of course Google is putting a lot of research into taking away the jobs of taxi drivers and truck drivers with their driverless cars.
Jaron Lanier (author of "You Are Not A Gadget", which I highly recommend) says in an interview with Slate that The Internet Destroyed The Middle Class:
At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?
If you think about it, software is only profitable if you can sell it to an organization. An organization is only going to buy the software if it saves them money. And how does it save them money? By letting them fire workers.
Whenver startup guys talk about "disrupting" an industry, what they mean is "we're going to fire all your workers and replace them with software, so that we -- the controllers of the software -- can be the new middlemen".
There are currently a lot of startup guys talking about "disrupting" education. Which means that teachers should be very, very afraid.
I can imagine a world where robots do all the work. In that world, capitalism and the current social contract of labor-for-wages are simply untenable. They'd have to have some other economic system for distributing the goods and services produced by all their robots. But how do we get there from here? In the short term, capitalism isn't going anywhere. And capitalism is going to ensure that technological advances continue to displace workers, while all of the productivity gains from the new technology are captured by the owners of industry.
It's a lot like what happened during the industrial revolution. If you take the very long view, you could say that the industrial revolution ended up making the economy better for everyone -- worldwide living standards and education levels and so on are higher now, and we have new jobs that are better than the old crappy jobs that were eliminated. But the long term benefit was small comfort to the people who lived through the industrial revolution and saw their jobs replaced by machines.
I'm not saying we should stop technological progress, even if we could. Instead, I think that the ongoing destruction of jobs by technological progress should be an argument for re-examining our economic system and our social contract, to try to come up with a system where the benefits of technological efficiency gains can be shared across society instead of accruing only to the top.