As readers of this blog may know, we started watching Robotics again in about 2008* when it became clear to us that the advance of Moore's Law meant that finally enough computer power and battery life made it possible to build robots with all their systems onboard, so they could become self-mobile and (to an extent) self directing. This change was labelled "3rd Generation" robotics (as always it was hyped long before it became reality, but over the last 5 years or so there has been a tipping point), and heralded a "Cambrian Explosion" in new robot design. This happens in every new technology, see here re: ships, steel and steam for example, and a plethora of ideas (and companies) start up up in the Darwinian ooze of the startup ecosystem, until eventually the category killers emerge.
Anyway, you know the robobuzz is well and truly ringing the bells of the early mass mind when someone like NESTA produces a 100+ page book on Robotics, it is called "Our Work Here is Done", and I read it over the weekend. It's a series of essays by various people on the topics of robot evolution, robot economics, robots and society, and of course What is To Become Of Humanity.
As to the individual papers - as you'd imagine, they're a bit curate's eggy, but there is a lot of good stuff, and some real nuggets in just about every paper. There are 4 main sections:
1. The Economics of a Robot Future (Has a lot of Social impact thrown in)
2. Technology Possibilities
3. Robots of the Past & Future
4. Robots and Justice (which has a whole 'nother slew of Socio-Economics)
Overall though it is a good introductory overview to all the emerging socio-economic issues. My two critiques overall are that:
- it is light on the actual technologies and how it all works, IMO its useful to have a grasp of the basic emergent technologies - stops the flights of the the fanciful.
- there is a bit of Panglossing over the downsides. Who owns these automated means of production for example? To whom will the newly liberated labour productivity wealth flow?. Promises of a leisure-filled and abundant future for a happy humanity should be put in the same bin that the self same predictions in the 1930's and 1970's were.
But with those caveats, its a cracking read.
I'm sorry I missed the launch, as one of Broadstuff Towers' all time heroes, Carlota Perez,, gave a keynote talk and it was excellent (see here). She would be the first to note there is usually quite a bit of Destruction before the happy Creation phase. I suspect that will also be the case for robot futures - take longer to happen, be nastier while happening, and take longer to get better. As one grounded participant (Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum) tweeted:
"The cry of forthcoming robot revolution won't be "I'll be back" or Exterminate, but 'Unexpected item in bagging area"
No one knows what to do with those who will be displaced by this industrial revolution, but at least this time round most of the writers note the displacement will happen...
(*Bit of background - my Honours dissertation & design project was on Robotics, years ago when they were very 1st generation - I reckoned robots were at least 30 years away from being more than auto-Waldos and went on to d other stuff, but now things are getting very interesting again).
People Invested $1 Million In An App That Just Says ‘Yo’
"It’s not just an app that says Yo,” says Mr Arbel. “It’s a whole new means of communication"
'nuff said... are we getting to an age when every startup gets $1m just for existing? Will tomorrow see $1m for an App that says Ni! ?
As was noted by James Surowiecki*
in the New Yorker, the problem is increasingly not getting started and seeded these days, its finding a way out the Darwinian stew of all the other crap ideas encouraged to start up - and this ain't the way to fix that.
* Author of Wisdom of Crowds
When the Twitter IPO was mooted, we believed that although the company has potential, one of the major risks to its future valuation was its management - see here for example
, where we wrote :
6. As always though, realizing potential comes down to execution.
- The FB team are very focussed, Twitter is harder to judge - lots of change at the top over the years, we wouldn't be at all surprised if they bring in an "Eric Schmidt" figure.
The fun and games
this week was totally predictable (see above...), now we await part 2 of our prediction - an Eric Schmidt type character brought in to reassure investors.
Who's your money on?
From The Atlantic
, it would seem that Google self drive cars rely hugely on the information about the road.:
Today, you could not take a Google car, set it down in Akron or Orlando or Oakland and expect it to perform as well as it does in Silicon Valley. Here's why: Google has created a virtual track out of Mountain View.
A Googler demonstrates what the self-driving car "sees." Note the background world on which the light traffic lights and their sightlines are displayed: that's the track.
The key to Google's success has been that these cars aren't forced to process an entire scene from scratch. Instead, their teams travel and map each road that the car will travel. And these are not any old maps. They are not even the rich, road-logic-filled maps of consumer-grade Google Maps.
They're probably best thought of as ultra-precise digitizations of the physical world, all the way down to tiny details like the position and height of every single curb. A normal digital map would show a road intersection; these maps would have a precision measured in inches.
In other words, the real work is not in the software for driving the car, but in mapping the road...
Google has created a virtual world out of the streets their engineers have driven. They pre-load the data for the route into the car's memory before it sets off, so that as it drives, the software knows what to expect.
"Rather than having to figure out what the world looks like and what it means from scratch every time we turn on the software, we tell it what the world is expected to look like when it is empty," Chatham continued. "And then the job of the software is to figure out how the world is different from that expectation. This makes the problem a lot simpler."
While it simplifies the driving algorithms, it relies on a hugely detailed - and up to date - map of the roads being used. In a way it makes me happier - they are not using new super-technology, nor have they thought of anything no one else has - they have just imagined using a far bigger hammer. As The Atlantic points out, the solution is very "Googley" - Mohammed won't go to Mountain? Simple - move Mountain...
The more you think about it, the more the goddamn Googleyness of the thing stands out: the ambition, the scale, and the type of solution they've come up with to this very hard problem. What was a nearly intractable "machine vision" problem, one that would require close to human-level comprehension of streets, has become a much, much easier machine vision problem thanks to a massive, unprecedented, unthinkable amount of data collection.
Not to mention massive use of huge data centres to do the Crunching...
Which is all very well, until you start to look at the costs of producing this sort of data on enough roads to make these sort of cars useable by private motorists. In fact the setup costs are so huge, and any payback very skewed (looking at where most road miles are travelled, it looks a lot like a logistics network) it's likely that these sorts of cars will initially be used as a new sort of taxi in or between major conurbations (ie cost to datamap road can only be offset by volume of paid journeys on very heavily trafficked routes). "Data Highways" first, then city roads, then suburban roads, then small towns, and as for the final 20% of rural roads - maybe never. And that is just the cost of initial digitisation - but you then have to keep those data maps to a useable level of accuracy, so frequent re-digitisation is required.
This also seems very similar to the classic Simulation Model error - the belief that if you can make a model that is accurate enough, you can simulate anything in software. The truth is you cannot simulate anything with 100% error free models, so you have to believe that 99.9999999% reliability x millions of road miles travelled x probability of serious accident will give a better outcome than is currently possible with a zero cost non digitised road, a sophisticated biocomputer driving the vehicle, and a fraction of this investment spent on a fraction of this technology to put intelligence onboard to make safer cars over the next few years.
The final issue is this - if Google spends the $ billions to collect the data, and if no one else can use these roads with their automated cars unless they buy that data (how else will the business case work - Ad boards on the cars? ) - then that is a classic infrastructure lock in, like any good road toll scheme. Of course, the local authorities could then add an extra tax on using these cars on their roads, so this could all get very interesting....
So - I made that Ad comment somewhat snarkily, only to find out that very evening that some people are planning to attach plastic laminates that can have have Ads printed on them on cars...and the laminates can have new images uploaded onto them from time to time.
Saw this project - Outrunner
-on Kickstarter. It particularly caught my interest as it is using a simple but innovative approach to robot movement - two rotating 3-spoke "legs" to get in effect a 6 rotating leg device - to move extremely fast (c 20 mph) and uses a combination of weight shifting and speed adjustment to steer.
It's interesting as the search for optimal robot movement systems is in its early days, and the level of experimentation is huge. This approach maps to the cycle of human running movement, but abstracts it to another architecture (rotating spokes) to deliver a similar result - in my view this observation of tested bio-mechanism and abstraction to mechatronic ones is probably going to be the endgame for optimal "mechanical life" configurations - but this field is a proper "artificial Darwinian stew" as robospecies evolve, and who knows what the endgame will be. (There is a 2 x 2 4 legged version as well, interesting as both sides have 4 spokes but 2 are shorter an don't reach the ground - the spoke on the other side does- I assume that is to balance the secondary moments - one wonders therefore why a 2 x 4 arrangement is not better than a 2 x 3)
But the bigger picture is this - this project (and the many like it) are being funded by end customers rather than angels or banks, so control of the money and ownership of the business is far more in the hands of the founders. Compare this to what these people would heve had to do to get the product out even a few years ago. Whether this one wins or loses is irrlevant, many are being tried out, innovation is moving at rapid speed
One of the real lesson we have learned in our research on new technologies that take off, is that the technological innovation is not enough to drive success and that often innovation in the business model is also required. The "Equity Gap" in technology startup funding has been well documented (by us as and by many others), and it seems that these crowdfunding schemes are part of the solution to that gap*. I see it as a part of the emerging collaborative economy, and it is massively disruptive as it:
- cuts out all direct middlemen, and replaces funding with a market platform at far lower rental cost
- gives the entrepreneur very direct customer feedback very early on (no likee, no fundee)
- keeps ownership with the innovator longer
In fact one could argue there is now a Darwinian competition between business models as well as mecatronic perambulation systems.
Of course, this is not to say this sort of funding won't have the same problems every other new player going to market has - getting attention. Apps were cool when there were a few, its far harder to make a splash when there are millions to sort through. No doubt at some point rising marketing spend and "trusted third parties" will interpose themselves between funder and crowdfundee (though they may be bots as much as humans) - but for now, it good to see innovative technology being driven by this new innovative business model.
* As of course is the "Freeconomic" benefit of massive research by semi publically funded bodies that these technologies often spin out from....
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