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Robots Getting More Human


It was a slow week for Mixed Reality (MR), the main topic on this blog. But every day last week there were reports of small but significant steps for MR's close cousin, robotics. Let me provide a condensed list of what impressed me most.

  • Developing personality?  InMoov, a life-size 3D-printed plastic robot was introduced by French designer Gael Langevin at a Rumanian Tech Fair. It evolved from a 3D prosthetic hand he created in 2011. It features 3D cameras for eyes and its head turns to follow people as they move around a room.It answers questions and chats with people in five languages--none of them binary. It is ready to ship for under $1700, and is intended in its first use  to educate and entertain children in schools and hospitals.

Langevin admits InMoov, is not yet perfect. "This is a little bit like Geppetto building Pinocchio. You make a robot and you send it into the world and you see what the others are going to do with it," he said. Perhaps, it will eventually sport a nose that grows if it lies. More seriously, InMoov will develop an individual personality personalities based on its environments and human interactions. 

Until now I thought this was unique to humans and mammals.

  • Robots teaching robots. One of the reasons why robots have developed slower than many of us thought would happen s that they learn very slowly from humans. But the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence lab reported this week that they have had  breakthrough with robots teaching each other

“This approach is actually very similar to how humans learn in terms of seeing how  something’s done and connecting it to what we already know about the world,” said Claudia Pérez-D’Arpino, a PhD student who worked on the project.
So now robots are learning from their environment and by example from peers. Is this exciting, freaky or both?

  • Learning to Walk. There was also a breakthrough this week in the nagging problem of teaching robots to walk in a more natural way. Humans do this easily because our bodies are assembled with a combination of rigid materials like bone and flexible materials such as we have in feet.

This week a new headless robot was introduced that uses a new form of rubbery legs to easily move across pavement, sand and pebbles, making it also more humanlike. This is still an early phase development, but combine it with the above two innovations and you start getting an environmentally shapeable machine that learns by example and can walk on the sandy slopes of a beach.

  • Learning dexterity through VR. Some robots have incredibly precise dexterity. They perform some surgeries better than a human can. But these are the high end learning machines. For household and human interfacing robots it has remained impossible to get one to bend over and pick up a dime.

This week, two new robotic arms were introduced. DexNet uses deep learning to identify, grasp and move objects into puzzle-like spaces. Simultaneously, UC Berkley this week received coverage for using Virtual Reality to teach robotic arms to use mechanical fingers to identify and grasp small object  

  • Laundry robots. This week also witnessed the surprising introduction of two low-cost robots designed to fold laundry. While this may not be on the world-shaking level, it seems significant to me because it shows how everyday people might get over the freak factors related to robots by simply wanting labor saving devices. In past generations it was the washing machine, the dryer and the iron. Now it may be the laundry folder, the self-vacuuming rug cleaner and the delivery drone.


  • Robot parasites. This may be a one off of my central theme of humanizing robots, but it fits into the category of 'things that make people go yuck.' Scientists announced this week robotic parasites. They attached a few to turtles and used them to make the creatures turn and move in a particular direction. They plan to use them soon to motivate endangered species to have sex and reproduce more. I guess it is only a matter of time when they will be attached to humans.

All this in a single week represents in my view a great leap forward for the use of robots in our homes, our work and in between.

It all happened in a slow news week for Mixed Reality, the subject i usually cover on this blog. But in the coming weeks there is a great deal happening.

First, there is Augmented World Expo 2017, which looks likely to be the largest-ever Mixed Reality conference to be held in Silicon Valley where it all began. Robert will be speaking there on May 3o and then he and I will be selling and signing books. Let us know if yu'll be there so we can say hello.

Second Andy Rubin the father of Android will be introducing the first smartphone from Essential, his new company. The phone is expected to feature a 360° camera plus AR capability. We are not sure if this will happen a AWE r not, but it would seem to be a suitable venue.

Apple Developer Conference takes place on June 5 and this has been heavily touted as where  the most significant iPhone updates ever will be announced. CEO Tim Cook has hinted heavily that this will be an AR iPhone and probably the cornerstone of a whole new generation of Apple products. 

I called robots and AR close cousins because they are both based in Artificial Intelligence--or soon will be. They are both technologies that should seamlessly interoperate in the Fourth Transformation which is still in its formative stages but moving forward faster than most people realize as this past week in robotics seems to illustrate.

Both technologies are also doing what is inevitable: they are becoming more human in their behavior.


Shel IsraelComment