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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Who Needs Humanoids?

After last years Japanese disaster robot disaster with U.S. robots  supporting human rescue teams fighting the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, while Japanese robots failed to do the dirty, dangerous and dull job, the debate about purpose and goals of robotics, humanoids and robotic intelligence has flamed up again.
After years of glossy future visions, robotic road maps, scientific poster and prototype promises robotics has again come to the critical point of prove and truth. Especially in times of financial crisis and economic downturn public and private investors ask for low risk innovations and high speed commercial success.
Who dislikes Humanoids?
The "Queen of Robotics" Helen Greiner, co-founder and former president of iRobot, now president and CEO of CyPhy Works, an early stage robotics company developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has recently critized "blue sky" robotics for engineering "cool" robots without practical use. In her New Scientist article she asks for "practical robots that do jobs well and affordably - factors that tend to get lost as people fascinate over the latest autonomous party pieces." Referring to last years nuclear disaster in Japan, where iRobot provided robots to search the damaged power plants, she claims that "many in Japan have questioned the nation's research focus on singing, running and dancing humanoid robots." Greiner is critical to the attempt "to duplicate human intelligence or the human form robotically". She argues that "we already have about 7 billion humans on the planet and we are really good at what we do. To sell humanoid robots they would have to be better than people - and that is just not realistic yet." Instead, Greiner promotes the idea of software standardization like ROS and Linux as development platforms for highly effective software solutions running on affordable low-energy processors.
This is not the first time Greiner is critical to  humanoids and the human replacement approach. In an article in 2009 she claims "robots should complement, not imitate, what humans do. In her future robotics vision robots support humans by reducing risks in dangerous situations i.e. for warfighters, police or HAZMAT personal. Robots also provide telepresence for virtual visits of family members or to deliver medicin and food to the elderly. In Greiners mind robotic vehicles avoid highway excidents and collect litter from the side of highways.

Human-Humanoid Partnership 
Proponents of the humanoid approach such as the Personal Robots Group at MIT Media Lab have argued that for many humanoid robot applications, people will naturally try to interact with robots in anthropomorphic, social terms. This is a natural fit for interacting with a robot as a partner. In a paper entitlied Humanoid Robots as Cooperative Partners for People (2003) researcher Cynthia Breazeal and her collegues propose that developing robots with social abilities is a critical step towards enabling them to be intelligent and capable in their interactions with humans, able to cooperate with people as capable partners, able to learn quickly and effectively from natural human instruction, are intuitive to communicate with, and are engaging for humans to interact with. Such issues must be addressed to enable many new and exciting applications for robots that require them to play a long-term role in people’s daily lives.

European 1 Billion Robot Companion Daydream
The debate about human vs. robotic intelligence, humanoid design vs. non-humanoid design, short-term vs. long-range research, basic vs. applied research is highly needed and important in the light of current economic and social crisis, with bankrupt states, collapsing industries and high unemployment.
While Greiner and her industrial fans propose a pragmatic approach focused on real customer and investor value, the European consortium behind the FET Flagship candidate Robot Companions for Citizens represents a visionary large scale research approach promising to create a new generation of  soft, sentient machines that will  act and interact physically, emotionally, socially and safely with humans. The 1 Billion Euro project envisions robots that will help and assist humans in activities of daily living, in workplaces  like factories, hospitals, in infrastructure maintenance and environment monitoring and preservation, and in urban areas. The researchers ask for money to solve the mystery of intelligence and promise robotic companions that could provide elderly care in the future in return.

Daydream or Nightmare - Who Cares?
Today there is very little public debate about the value and need of robot companions in European homes.  Politicians are occupied by permanent budget crisis, reelection challenges and media hunts. Voters are occupied by daily life issues, information overflow and consumer stress. Interest in science and technology education is decreasing among young people in developed economies. What's left is a small group of researchers and industry experts who supported by national innovation agents and funding bureaucrats, are mapping robotics and future scenarios to secure their own funding without any success warranty or responsibility for future outcomes. Few citizens have competence and possibility to review and evaluate research proposals, their value and possible consequences for mankind.  But some do and create artistic visions that might impact public opinion more than expected.

Robot and Frank
One artistic contribution to the debate about robot companions has been provided by  first-time director Frank Langella, at the ongoing Sundance film festival. His movie "Robot and Frank" is a delightful dramatic comedy that explores human-robot relation in an intelligent and sensible way. Frank lives by himself. His routine involves daily visits to his local library, where he has a twinkle in his eye for the librarian. His grown children are concerned about their father’s well-being and buy him a caretaker robot. Initially resistant to the idea, Frank soon appreciates the benefits of robotic support—like nutritious meals and a clean house—and eventually begins to treat his robot like a true companion. With his robot’s assistance, Frank’s passion for his old, unlawful profession is reignited, for better or worse.  Check out the video clip from the film below.


Sebastien said...

That's a great post. But I think you forget that research and business are very different.

I would argue that it's normal for researcher to aim for bipedal robots. Clearly wheeled robots can't go everywhere, and even iRobot's Packbots were not perfect to explore Fukushima. Scientists should research for new ways to move around.

In Japan, they have companies that make very efficient robots: they make industrial robotic arms. But I don't know any company focusing on mobile robots. It's always humanoid or semi-humanoid.

Also, note that Packbots and most exploration robots are focused on army applications, which is a big No-No in Japan.

I think Greiner is right that companies should focus on applied robots, mostly non-humanoid. I think Europe is right that research can focus on legged robots.

In my lab, we do humanoid robots, and my elders tell me that a 2-legged robot is better than 4-legged robot. I still have to see that. I think the near future is in 4-legged robots like Big-Dog and some snake like robot to explore disaster areas.

Infonaut said...

Thank you for your nice comment. Your are right research and business have different goals and dev.loops. You have to solve sci and tech problems, business has to create value for customers and shareholders.
My concern is about the lack of public debate about purpose and goals of large scale tax-funding research with unknown outcomes for mankind. Do we have reliable system of international scientific responsibility and corporate governance? Are we in control of the cybernetic and robotic arms race? I don't think so, but have already passed the way of no return and I'm not sure we've experienced the worst.
Who are the trustworthy ombudsmen and women, who review and explain the pro and cons of robotic singularity research to politicians and their voters. Who is responsible for next generation future? We hear about climate, energy, financial and elderly crisis with a naive hope science and technology will save and secure our convenient but expensive life style. But isn´t Sci-Tech part of our system crisis? With all respect to scientific efforts the last 100 years I have to confess doubts about the current course of human progress. Fukushima was a reminder how naive and ignorant high-educated humans can be. I'm well aware of the paradox of life supporting and destroying technology, intelligent robots are a great metaphor (see recent Robot and Frank movie). The "One Robot Companion per Household Vision" sounds cool and may attract investors but isn´t also very naive. With global urbanism, who will pay rent and energy bill for 3+ billion humanoid companions in the future? What if these creatures develop free will. Would it be right to limit their robotic intelligence below our own to stay in control. What kind of intelligence will take over? Very sci-fi, no, already critical when evaluating the proposed FET robot project. Its urgent to debate robotics in public and with an open mind.

Joseph said...

I appreciate how japan is fast in technology like robots. Maybe because of their economy and the support of the government with the talents of their people.

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