I had a unique opportunity yesterday, I was invited to participate in a PCAST workshop (the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology). The theme of the meeting was Bio/Info/Nano tech, what exciting opportunities are happening in these fields that will create jobs in the US, and what the government can do to spur innovation. I’ll probably have a couple of SWMR posts about the discussion, and thought I’d start off with one about my contribution to the discussion, since I was the only roboticist in the room.
They had a wide range of discussants, several of us were early career researchers, which I think were invited to share our “what’s new and exciting that’s going to create jobs” point of view. Another contingent of the discussion group were more seasoned researchers and entrepreneurs, that had a sort of from the trenches perspective of how the government’s support of basic research has changed over the years.
Each discussant had the opportunity in a three minute introduction to make a statement to the council. Here’s a recap of what I said:
The technology opportunity I decided to highlight is service robotics, because they have the potential to dramatically impact such a diverse set of societal needs. Robots that are capable of working alongside people will revolutionize workplaces, for example in manufacturing.
Robotics represents perhaps our best opportunity to achieve higher levels of domestic manufacturing agility and overall productivity needed to retain high-value manufacturing jobs in the U.S., provided that the current state of the technology can be significantly advanced.
Today’s industrial robots lack the capabilities required to do more than just blindly execute pre-programmed instructions in structured environments. This makes them expensive to deploy and unsafe for people to work alongside.
There is an opportunity to usher in a new era of agile and innovative manufacturing by developing service robots as co-workers in the manufacturing domain. These capable assistants would work safely in collaboration and close proximity to highly skilled workers. For example, providing logistical support, automatically fetching parts, packing/unpacking, loading, stacking boxes, emptying bins, detecting and cleaning spills.
Very similar logistical robotic support could help streamline the operation of hospitals, driving healthcare costs down.
In order to realize this vision, we need to move beyond robots only operating in relatively static structured environments. This presents several research challenges, and I think that the following three are most critical to progress.
– This requires advances in sensing and perception technology, allowing robots to keep track of a dynamically changing workplace.
– Manipulation is a key challenge as well, robots need the flexibility to be able to pickup and use objects in the environment without tedious pre-programming of specialized skills.
– Finally, an important challenge in bringing these robots to fruition is advances in human-robot interaction. We need these robots to work safely and efficiently in collaboration with human workers. People can’t just be seen as an obstacle for the robot to navigate around, the robot needs to reason about and understand people as interaction partners.
Recently, over 140 robotics experts across the country have come together to articulate a national robotics initiative, a robotics research roadmap. This roadmap lays out the target areas where we think robotics research efforts need to be supported in order to bring about robot technology that will have the biggest impact on our economy and our society.
The comment I got from one of the council members was interesting, she said (I’m paraphrasing) “Aren’t you leaving out the challenge of Sentience or AI needed?” I only had time for a short answer, and said something to the effect that, yes, I think that the notion of AI cuts across all of the three areas I mentioned, but particularly human-robot interaction. In order for a robot to work side-by-side with a human partner it will need human compatible intelligence capabilities.
But here on SWMR, I’ll give the longer answer….that, no I don’t think we need AI for service robots. Or I don’t think that’s what we should call it. Yes, perception and manipulation and HRI and autonomy in general all fit under the big umbrella term of AI. But the term AI is so vague, and it makes people think of science fiction, which then makes you feel like robots in society is some pipe dream far in the future. So, particularly in settings like PCAST where people want to hear about concrete objectives and job creation, it does our field no good to just lump everything under the term AI.
If instead we talk about the specific intelligence challenges suddenly it all seems much more achievable, and you can imagine some semi-autonomous form of service robots being deployed in the not so distant future. We see that, hey sensing technology is getting better and better, and look at all the academic and industrial partners working on the manipulation problem, that seems achievable. And in terms of AI for human-robot interaction, yes we need to make some significant advances in computational models of social intelligence before robots can truly interact with people in unstructured environments. But do we need to solve AI? I don’t think so.