Satellites do need tech support now and then, but whom are you gonna call when a large metal and glass object hurtling through space needs a repairman?
One group of scientists believes it could deploy a robot to fix a broken antenna or a weakened panel. Ou Ma, a professor at the University of Cincinnati professor believes his group could develop robots –basically robotic satellites– that can be deployed to dock with a satellites and perform the necessary tasks. The details are here.
I found the story interesting because sending robots into space isn’t something new. But sending robots on ‘work’ related missions, rather than for mere exploration, might be an area that attracts funding. Robotics is often seen as dangerous, unnecessary, or too expensive.
In a related development, speaking of work, researchers at ASU are looking at how robots could augment, rather than replace workers in certain jobs. This story, in this month’s ThriveMagazine, looks at the human impact of robotics. There’s obviously an AI component to this. “What we can do instead is design our AI systems, our robots, in a way that will help people to come on board,” says Siddharth Srivastava, at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society
Have you seen this concept video? Robots that perform farming. It’s disturbing to say the least, to think that the field of robotics is being applied to areas we never used to anticipate. No longer ‘programmed’ robots, these are machines that learn and apply what we now call machine learning, to the environment they are placed in. For instance could a robot learn about —and work in consort with — other devices on the so-called farm. (It’s actually a greenhouse.).
To put it in context, if robots could shuttle between products on a shelves in an Amazon warehouse, this is just an extension of that – an industrial application. We are at the starting blocks of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, so these upheavals – technological, economic, environmental, social etc— are just beginning to show up. I’ve been critical of the rush to apply AI into everything, holding out some optimism that these players and industries might still need some humans, while replacing others.
A few weeks back I featured an ominous exercise, conducted seven years ago by the Navy Research Lab.Today Artificial Intelligence is taking us into a new machine age, with devices, and not just robots, being able to grow ‘intelligent’ with data they glean from other machines we use.
Big players are developing capabilities in AI –from PwC and IBM, to Tesla and Alibaba!
This is one impressive gathering of 170 nations. It is hosted by the ‘FIRST’ organization, which is the umbrella organization that holds 5 other robotics tournaments around the country, such as FIRST Lego League Jr., FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics for grades K-4, 4-8, 7 – 9, and 9-12 respectively.
I’ve worked with FIRST for the past 6 years, and met Dean Kamen, the founder, who’s one of the biggest STEM promoters I’ve ever known. He puts his money where his mouth is, a serial entrepreneur and educator who inspires youth across all ages. If you like to know how to get your school involved in robotics, or STEM, let me know.
If you’ve been following my robotics coverage here, I am happy to report on this year’s Team Sri Lanka, who will represent the country at the second Robotics Olympics. The event will be in August, in Mexico City.
I met with the team coaches in Colombo in mid June to find out how they have been progressing. They have been building the robot from the kit they received from First Global, under guidance of a engineer and IT teacher, Shankar. His expertise is in CAD design and he seems excited –though unfazed! — about his students who must build a robust competition-worthy robot.
At the time of writing they are working on a lift mechanism –a so-called ‘cantilever lift’ mechanism — that will allow the bot to move objects to the area that earns them maximum points.
There are four ‘Laws of robotics’ that are seldom discussed whenever the topic comes up. There were written by the late sci-fi author, Isaac Asimov. More like guide rails, these are practical laws.
With the rapid rise in automation, AI, and robotics from battlefield robots (developed by South Korea, the US, and who knows who else) and surgical bots, these issues are worth discussing. Why leave the issues of automation and robotics to academic and/or politicians?
Exhibit B: Then there’s the more benign use of a robot –in a coffee shop! The Da Vincisurgical robot (which I have written about) was used in a ‘demo’ of sorts in Kullman, Alabama, to give people a chance to see its capability in a friendly setting. This robot typically handles gall bladder and hernia procedures. (No fear, it’s not an autonomous bot.) Nice touch, humanizing this strange-looking refrigerator-sized 4-arm robot.
The point being, teaching robotics ought to come with a layer of ethics. It’s not enough to be develop breakthrough robots just because we can. There is such a thing as the 4 Laws of Robotics, as written up by Science Fiction writer, Isaac Asimov. They are:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
The fourth law was added later by Asimov. We may have begun crossing the line, and ignoring it.
Interestingly, the UN this week has addressing the pace of robotics, through the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreement, and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. Lots of semantics in the debate, with regard to ‘autonomous’ and ‘automated’ and what constitutes ‘human control’ of these devices.
Robots are great until they carry out tasks that take humans out of the equation. Or when they attempt to use ‘data’ as a substitute for insight.
For this reason I am not exactly excited about self-driving cars – and I pass some of these each week in the Gilbert area. (Bummer! Uber’s autonomous vehicle met with a 3-vehicle crash last week) Besides the safety aspect, there’s the real long-term effect of erosion of jobs. Those jobs that involve routine manual tasks. Think of warehouse work, or on-demand ‘runners’ and movers that make a factory work.
As fascinating as this demo below seems, it’s the dark side of what robots could do to the workplace.
If there’s any upside of this, it’s that companies that defining this future are hiring people with emerging engineering and science (STEM) backgrounds. The company who developed this cart says it is hiring a ‘Computer Vision Scientist‘ – someone with math skills, and experience in LIDAR, radar, sonar, GPS etc.
I love it! The smart cart can ‘see’ and find its way through a messy warehouse. But it needs a scientist with ‘computer vision‘ in his/her title to bring such technologies to fruition. At least it’s a raison d’être for STEM education. People who can carry out cognitive, problem-solving tasks that bots cannot. Yet.
So as #Flooding and #StormSurge is on everyone’s mind with havoc from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it is unhappily timely that robotics in schools and clubs across the country are wrapping their minds around an H2O challenge. Specifically, ‘Hydro Dynamics.’
It’s this year’s theme for the FIRST Lego League that will culminate in tournaments between November and December. (Interestingly, the theme of the FIRST Global ‘Olympics‘ in July was H2O Flow ) Alongside the work on building and programming a bot to run missions, students must work on a research project. How water is sourced, conserved, distributed etc. They must also come up with a solution that ‘adds value to society’.
As I watch my school team assemble the missions in my lab, it’s evident that each mission (built of Lego pieces) is more complex this year: There’s a ‘Pump addition’ mission, a Water Treatment model involving ‘Big water’, and others involving Pipe Replacement, and Sludge Removal.