Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reduce the Deficit and Invest in Targeted Innovation

I was disappointed with the section of President Obama's 2011 State of the Union speech regarding investing in selected new technologies for future growth.

I had hoped he would use the word “robotics” and include the necessity for an American robotics industry in his speech and it is unfortunate that he did neither. That he focused his investment scope to exclude robotics might just be the death knell for the American robotics industry because, without national strategic focus, things will go on as they have… VERY slowly and very dependent on Space and Defense for research dollars.

A thriving robotics industry provides jobs, helps the nation increase efficiency, profitability and productivity and upgrades the mix of workers involved. Yet America doesn't presently have a national robotics agenda. Europe does. Japan does. Korea does. And each of these countries is gaining success and momentum worldwide.

Tom Atwood, editor-in-chief of Robot magazine, recently stated:
Although the government is beginning to wake up and push for an expansion of robotics education in schools with the DARPA-funded FIRE (Furthering Innovation through Robotics Exploration) program at Carnegie Mellon and the NSF-funded DARwIn-OP project at Virginia Tech, these and similar programs, by themselves, are not enough for our country to maintain its competitive technological edge. We need a national robotics policy that is specifically articulated in a clear call to action by our executive branch, and we need backing of such a program by Congress.
Pres. Obama was inspiring in his speech and his directness to the issues of the day, and his reference to a Sputnik II moment was wonderful as he attempted to address the need for American students to become involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. This is a serious issue and a major difference between America and all of the other countries in which robotics flourish: STEM education takes extra dedication, energy, time and persistence which is not happening with American students; in fact there seems to be resistance to pursuing a career in science (except for a career in medicine, or on the business side of math - as a quant - which, even today, still equates to enormously big bucks.) The Sputnik reference was eloquent but, at least for robotics, empty.

Microsoft Kinect - add-on device for Xbox game controller
He missed some great technology examples.  One that I find particularly illuminating is the effect that the technology inside Microsoft’s new Xbox Kinect device has had. Kinect is a controller free gaming and entertainment experience. It enables users to control and interact with the Xbox 360 game system without the need to touch a controller, through a natural user interface using gestures and spoken commands. Not only have sales of Xboxes exploded but so have the applications and uses - and sales - of the cameras and depth-perception software inside the Kinect. iRobot and WillowGarage are using the $50 Kinect innards in lieu of LIDAR range-finder machines costing upwards of $5,000. Check out iRobot’s new AVA concept robot. Hackers and inventors worldwide have been finding new uses for the Kinect that Microsoft didn't even dream of. Now that’s inspiring!

There are many things happening in robotics in America. There's work underway - with some successes thus far - to get an American robotics roadmap funded and implemented and there's been a steady trickle-down effect from the research dollars spent on defense and space by NASA, DARPA and the DoD. Medical robotics are on a tear. There is independent investment as well. In Wisconsin, Indiana, Georgia, Massachusetts and Alabama, state-, corporate- and educationally-sponsored Robotic Centers are springing up to provide training in the programming, repair and maintenance of robots, as well as for research and testing. Alabama's recently opened Robotics Technology Park is a serious $73 million three-pronged endeavor to provide (1) an industry training program where technicians will be trained to work on robotic machinery; (2) a test facility for NASA and the US Army for research and testing of leading edge robotics for defense and space exploration; and (3) a facility to allow start-up companies to build and adapt robots for new industries. Imagine if this kind of state-inspired public-private forethought were done on a national level... now that's a Sputnik II moment.

Alison Diana at InformationWeek just did a piece on 12 Advances in Medical Robotics but failed to note that 2/3 of the vendors were not American.  Eight out of the 12 were Japanese, Korean or European. The ratio of industrial robot providers in America is even worse: although integrators, engineers and consultants tend to be American-owned, the major robot providers (KUKA, ABB, Comau, Denso, Schunk, Motoman, Daihen, Reis, Fanuc) are all foreign-owned. That is also a Sputnik II moment.

English Teaching Robot
In South Korea, robotic guides and docents patrol the Presidential Museum as 70,000 monthly visitors experience an advertisement of the nation’s cutting-edge technologies that made it a global leader in chips, mobile phones, TVs, display panels, and robotics that combine them all. South Korea is into the 5th year of a 10-year $1 billion investment in robotic technologies with a series of national goals endorsed by their President.

An example of how a nationally-directed strategic program works is when a shortage of English teachers compelled the South Korea government to use robotic teachers. They are deploying them in 500 preschools in 2011, and 8,000 preschools and kindergartens by 2013. It helps address the lack of English teachers in rural areas or remote islands. Learning English represents a necessary educational step for competitive South Korean students, and especially those aiming to study abroad at major universities in the U.S. Now that's a Sputnik II moment.

This is what was missing from President Obama's speech: the recognition that part of the underbelly of America's productivity and efficiency is automation and robotics. It's a very necessary industry which needs national direction. Mark Ingebretsen, the new editor of Robotic Trends Business Review,  adds an additional dimension to Pres. Obama’s exclusion of robotics, “the robotics that drive America’s economy and defense will be in the hands of other countries that have spent the early 21st century developing robot technologies.”

President Obama's call for action using the Sputnik II example is moot in relation to robotics without the formulation and acceptance of a roadmap and the establishment of a public-private consortium to implement it fully.  A roadmap was presented in May, 2009 and some of it's provisions are slowly making their way through the halls of Congress.  But there is no executive leadership thus far.  If there were, Pres. Obama's Sputnik II moment would be a true call to action instead of pointless rhetoric.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Speed; 3D; 4G; TV everywhere - oh, and robots too

Collage of robot consumer products shown at CES 2011


Robotics Trends, a division of EH Publishing, an events, e-media and technology publishing company covering the electronics, construction and robotics industries, sponsored what CES called a "Robotics Tech Zone" focused on robotic consumer products. Unfortunately, there were just a few.  Nevertheless, there were some interesting things to see in the Tech Zone and more to see on the greater show floor at iRobot, Parrot AR.Drone, Audi and Ford:
iRobot's AVA
modular telepresence robot
  • iRobot showed their new upgraded line of robot vacuum and floor cleaners but also introduced an iPad-controlled mobile robot with a Kinect-type device as a communications controller. Additionally, iRobot is proposing that an app store be established for the robot (named AVA) so that customers can mix and match apps and add-on devices to customize the robot for their purposes.  Read more (and watch a video about AVA) here.
  • The little WheeMe device by DreamBots, unavailable until Q4, gave a relaxing tickle as it crawled up, down and around a model's back, but definitely wasn't a viable massager.
  • Startup Orbotix displayed their baseball-sized Bluetooth Sphero which can be controlled by iOS or Android apps on your smart device. The apps determine the use of the ball in games, augmented reality or realtime.
  • Murata Manufacturing displayed their gyro-sensor'd Murata Girl unicyclist and Murata Boy bicyclist. Both are not ready for production and are concept pieces.
  • Cyberdyne demonstrated an abbreviated version of their HAL robot suit which assists in rehabilitation support and physical training, heavy labor support in factories and rescue support at disasters. 
  • Anybots was displaying their QB telepresence robot which will sell at $15,000 mid-2011.
  • The new Pleo RB (reborn) by Innvo Labs,  was as cute and functionally fascinating as the previous iteration of the lovable dinosaur.  But the real story here is Jetta Manufacturing who rescued Pleo by launching Innvo Labs and reinvigorating the line with the new Pleo RB.  Jetta was the manufacturer and packager of two US robotic products produced in China: Pleo and Autom.
  • Intuitive Automata's Autom, a personal diet mentor that interacts with you and tracks your dieting progress. Autom is manufactured in China by Jetta for an American company.
  • The furry Paro robot was there cooing.
  • VGo Communications' stylish VGo telepresence robot was roving the walkways around the HighTech Education booth.
  • French car component manufacturer Parrot was again showing last year's hit at CES, their AR.Drone augmented reality quadcopter visually controlled through an iPhone, iPad or iTouch.
  • LG Electronics' RoboKing floor vacuum was glitzy and did a good job of cleaning up and was accompanied by a group of smart home appliances (washer, dryer, refrigerator and oven) .
  • Neato Robotics' SV-11, another robot vacuum already on the market, was also on display.
  • Ilshim Global was showing their new Windoro window-washing robot, a pre-production product developed by Korean PIRO (Pohang Institute of Intelligent Robotics)
  • Tim Hornyak, who wrote "Loving the Machine" and now works for CNET, took a great picture of General Motors' EN-v concept car which incorporates Segway-like balancing technology, can autonomously drive in groups at highway speeds and is meant to be marketed in ultra-crowded cities sometime in the future. 
  • Pictures for most of the above can be seen at CNET.
In addition to consumer products, Carnegie Mellon University and Frauhofer, Europe's largest application-oriented research institution, shared a booth to show various concept products like the one from a young grad student at CMU: a soft, inflatable arm that can safely manipulate objects in order to assist with personal care tasks for people with serious disabilities. Another CMU item was a modular snake robot that can climb trees.

Embedded systems added to standard appliances were displayed at the Whirlpool and LG booths and alluded to at a few others - from robotic baristas to refrigerator doors.

Nothing was as truly robotic as the car companies which were showing their new in-car navigation/entertainment/communication systems and plans for the immediate future.  A big job what with the changing array of tablets and smartphones being added to the mix.  Audi and Ford had enormous presentations including concept cars.  Adaptive cruise control, park-o-matic, lane awareness, driver alertness - from sensors to processing to autonomous action and/or interaction with the driver.  Fascinating stuff.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally described it best when he said:
Ford adds value to all the gadgetry when it consolidates them into intuitive, safe (eyes-on-the-road) and up-to-date in-car navigation, entertainment and communication systems that don't interfere with all the other technology in the car and enhance the driving experience for the user.
Watch the keynote addresses by Ford's CEO Alan Mulally and Rupert Stadler, Chairman of Audi at CES last week.  Both are worth your time and both really give you  the feel of this years innovation - and complexity - at CES 2011.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Media - with all it's rough edges - clearly seen at CES 2011

Guess which one is me taking notes
I spent three days at CES listening, checking, talking and walking. My focus was robotics and the showing was meager. There were few consumer robotic products at the show. A full list of those can be seen in "Speed, 3D, 4G, TV Everywhere - Oh... And Robots Too."

Consumer electronics are driven by demand, need, price and design (not in that order) but, so far, that kind of consumer market pressure isn't present for consumer robotic products. It is present for iPad-like products, 3D TVs, faster broadband, and in-car nav/entertainment systems. Intuitive and easy-to-use being the key criteria.

My 3-day visit exposed me to the complexities of network buildouts, in-car systems, conflicting OS's like iOS, Android (and the new Honeycomb), MS and all the others.  But what I really saw was the new media at work - and it was fun watching them do so.

I'm really not an old-fashioned guy.  I am, in years, older than the average media person attending CES.  But I'm just as lean and hungry as they are to gather and report really interesting news.  I did, however, feel really old when I was surrounded by the 5,000+ new and much younger media that flocked to and aggressively staked out their turfs at CES. Of that number, 1,200 were international. They were streaming while I was taking notes; they were videoing or big-lense photographing while I was trying to find my pocket camera; they were squatting in the halls munching their free boxed lunches while I felt hunger pangs but kept on walking, talking and taking notes on a very time-intense, crammed schedule.

iRobot's concept
telepresence robot Ava
My goals in attending trade shows haven't changed over the years. I go to see where the crowds are gathering (LG, Motorola, Blackberry's new tablet, 3D screens, in-car nav/entertainment systems, and NOT Microsoft (even though MS had a mammoth set of booths)); meet and greet acquaintances that I would never otherwise have the chance to visit with; sift through the hype and vapor to capture the "essence" of the innovations being displayed;  hone in on my area of interest: robotics; and find a gem or two that I couldn't have found had I not been there in person. I did find that gem: What can you do with AVA (iRobot's new telepresence concept robot seen at CES)?.


CES is really two shows: one for the media and companies wanting to get out their stories (new products and plans) and another for trade buyers, interested people and trend setters.  The media holds court for two days even before the trade expo opens to the public.  And that's where much of the new-product information is presented, gathered and promoted.

On day one, two statistics-packed presentations showed that worldwide consumer electronics purchases in 2010 were up 3% and expected to increase slightly more in 2011. The trends for 2011 were even more interesting and included portability, dropping prices of smart devices, ballooning sales of e-readers, smart phones and tablets, and the integration of sensing technologies (accelerometers, touch screens, pressure, stabilization, GPS) with increased connectivity, computing power, etc. into all types of products and devices in and out of vehicles enabling more intuitive user experiences and data collection. These were followed by an evening mini-trade show - a teaser of the bigger show - held in a large ballroom at the Venetian.

Day two was one 45 minute press conference after another - from 8 am to 5:45 pm - with every big name company (LG, Intel, Pioneer, Audiovox, Nvidia, Sharp, Casio, Cisco, Samsung, Panasonic, Motorola and Sony) announcing their new products, showing concept products and discussing how their plans fit into the overall changes occurring in consumer electronics in 2011.  All those presentations were followed by Steve Ballmer's Keynote address over at the Hilton where he displayed the new Kinect xBox device (which enables controller-free entertainment), Microsoft's new phone software, the forthcoming convergence of phone/pad, PC and TV, and the weight of MS's 1 billion customers worldwide.

Day three - the first day of the actual trade show - is also media-focused in that all the exhibitors are anxious to get their 15 minutes of fame in all its forms: blogs, print, photos, videos and tweets.

Who would have thought that live blogging of the Verizon keynote would be of interest to a large enough audience?  [Well, had I not been there in person, I would have been one of them.  Why?  Because the bandwidth to my office is too slow to watch the live streaming video, which I would have preferred to watch, that's why!] But there, sitting next to and behind me, were two young "reporters" from CNET who were live blogging the presentation, and doing research and inserting stock and just-taken photos. Fascinating to watch them at work as I took notes of the talk - and of them blogging it.

This brings up another subject: bandwidth. Since everyone at CES is tech savvy, they all had iPhones or smart phones or pads, tablets, PCs or notebooks.  Many had multiples of these devices.  Consequently, before each presentation there were announcements asking everyone in the audience, particularly the press, to turn off their wifi and other bandwidth-hogging devices so that the presenters wouldn't be thwarted with technical glitches during their presentations.  These announcements came with cries from my seatmates and others of: "How can you invite us here to do our reporting jobs and then tell us to turn off the very devices that help us do that job?"

Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg keynote
with guest Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner CEO
To me, the talk between Time Warner and Verizon CEOs Jeff Bewkes and Ivan Seidenberg described the essence of the show and of the changes we are likely to see in the near-term future. They talked about content and delivery.  Time Warner has the content and talent and Verizon will soon have the fastest 4G delivery system. Delivery anytime, anyplace and to any device - only paying once for the content.


Las Vegas, January, 2011
I've been to three CES shows but this is the first time as a "press" person. I was having a coffee and met an AP reporter.  I asked him if he had an engineering or technical background.  Nope.  Instead, he mostly covered disasters and was on his way back from one when they asked him to stop in Las Vegas and cover CES.  When I asked if that was atypical of the AP reporting style, he said that this was the way things were these days - you go where it was the least expensive for you to go, and you learn about and research the subject as you are writing your stories.

It's true that The Robot Report tracks the business of robotics via it's website and delves deeply into the issues involved in the business side of the industry with it's blog Everything-Robotic.  But does that make me a reporter?  Loosely, the answer is yes.  Is the Everything-Robotic blog a news source or a forum for my opinions. And are my reports and opinions comparable to those eminating from the NY Times, CNET, Spectrum or the AP?  In today's changing media climate, the answers are yes, yes and yes.  I got what I came for and am appreciative for the opportunity afforded me by having a press pass and I hope that I am able to convey the events, scenes and information I saw and gathered in easy-to-read stories for you.

Friday, January 7, 2011

What Can You Do With AVA (iRobot's new concept robot seen at CES 2011)?

Las Vegas, January, 2011
iRobot had a booth at CES 2011 in Las Vegas to show their upgraded line of robotic vacuum cleaners and a few other consumer products. In addition to iRobot, there were other booths showing Korean and Chinese versions of robot floor-cleaning devices.

Ava, iRobot's telepresence
concept mobility device
But this little gem of a mobile robot - AVA was her name - was there at CES, in a little bull pen, and so was Colin Angle, who described and demo'd it.  It was the hit of my trip to CES because my imagination went wild.

It's a concept robot built inexpensively from other products.  An iPad is fastened on top - and since the new iPad 2's will have two cameras - one front and back  - the iPad could be used for two-view applications, the telepresence visual agent.  Affixed below the iPad is a Kinect-like device for navigation, gesture recognition and additional sensor input. This device could be used for a variety of apps like hands-free communication with the iPad, following the actions of a nurse, etc.  Driving the whole thing is iRobot's core mobility device and nav system.

When I asked Colin about whether it was iRobot's version of a telepresence robot he said that it wasn't anything just yet - rather, it was a mobile device, cheaply made from user-friendly components, waiting for users to provide the apps for it to do their bidding.  It's modular and customizable and wide open for applications.  Then I asked him whether it was a home health device and he smiled and said that once it matured into something, their health robotics unit would be the first to make use of it.

PC Magazine's Lance Ulanoff video-interviewd Colin Angle describing Ava:

The app store concept for robotic apps and add-on devices is, in my opinion, the right approach to maximize implementing mobile robots for various tasks. Willow Garage certainly supports the app store concept.  Right now they're running a contest to find apps that combine an RGB-D sensor (a Kinect or Kinect-like device) with their ROS (Robot Operating System) to produce something new, interesting and fun. PS: The contest ends on January 23rd. Rod Brooks' is intending to launch a Heartland Robotics apps store for their new factory assistant robot.

Perhaps when the iPad2 is announced, iRobot will launch a similar contest to find apps and add-ons for their mysterious new robot named AVA. What kinds of apps and/or add-ons do you see for AVA?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Manufacturing With Robots: Prospects and Problems Ahead

2011 is a pivotal year for industrial and service robots. In fact, we may see the marriage of industrial with service robots to be used as assistants in manufacturing. The recent launches in Europe of pi4-robotics' workerbot and Japan's Motoman's two-armed headless robot, and the anticipated 2011 launch in the U.S. of Heartland Robotics' factory assistant robot are examples of this trend.

Henrik Christensen (Director Robotics and Intelligent Machines, Georgia Institute of Technology) said in a recent ROBOTICA Forum:
In manufacturing only through use of automation can we reduce the need to out-source. Our workers are not going to be more effective in doing manual labor, but with the right tools they can be more effective and the motivation to outsource less pronounced. Companies are starting to realize that once you start an out-sourcing process it may result in all of the process going off-shore. That happened in textiles and apparel and the poster child in the IT industry is the IBM ThinkPad transformation to Lenovo laptops. Also the disk drive industry had a similar move to Singapore.

To be effective, robots have to be lower cost and higher dexterity. We are starting to see this - and the cost of integration is also coming down.
The recently released 2010 robotics industry reports from the International Federation of Robotics said:
Dramatic advances in robotics and automation technologies are even more critical with the next generation of high-value products that rely on embedded computers, advanced sensors and microelectronics requiring micro- and nano-scale assembly, for which labor-intensive manufacturing with [low-skilled] human workers is no longer a viable option.
Here are some quotes from the Heartland Robotics website that are more real than hyperbole:
Today's manufacturing robots are big and stiff, unsafe for people to be around, engineered to be precise and repeatable, not adaptable. Normal workers can't touch them.

Our robots will be intuitive to use, intelligent and highly flexible.  They'll be easy to buy, train, and deploy and will be unbelievably inexpensive.
Similar wording can be found on the pi4-robotics website and Motoman's.

Today's industrial robots are truly expert systems

Lest we forget, industrial robots encapsulate years of translating the skills of craftsmen to the mechanical capabilities of robots.  There's no other way that robots could have replaced their human counterparts were it not for the fact that the robot can do the same task equal to or better than the human.

Industrial robots in car factory
The know-how, where robots mimic human actions in the various aspects of the auto industry, represents decades of accumulated knowledge transfer by veteran craftsmen.

In welding, for example, the finish of welding varies, depending on the kind of metal used, its thickness and the power voltage. Craftsmen adjust the speed of welding by observing how sparks fly to get the best finish. From a story in Asahi:
About 10 years ago, Yasakawa (Motoman) started filming its craftsmen at work, using a high-speed camera to record their hand movements. The accumulated data was programmed into robots to enable them to perform tasks from several thousand options of welding that craftsmen had established over the years.

Because Yaskawa makes and uses robots at its main factory, it enables the company to pass along technical expertise from elders to their juniors.

"You can copy a robot, but not control technology that craftsmen created," said Junji Tsuda, president of Yaskawa. "(Exporting robots) is like shipping the craftsmen themselves."

"Chinese and South Korean makers are less likely to come up with such technology because they are more inclined to want results in the short term," said Akira Yoshino, the engineer-inventor of the lithium-ion battery.
Presently, robots in manufacturing are, except for the auto industry and welding apps, mostly involved in post processing and packaging rather than in the manufacturing process. [This latter point is not to be minimized - in fact, it is a booming area of robotics: picking, packing, packaging, processing, sorting and warehousing.]

But not general manufacturing!

The near-term future will see the gradual appearance of multi-purpose, flexible, easily trainable robots. We are likely to see the bridging between the expert systems of the past and these flexible systems of the future - in manufacturing in 2011.

I see three issues involved:
  1. Robotics for Small and Medium-sized manufacturers and factories (SME's)
  2. National strategies to solve important issues
  3. Training and retraining people for the future
SME's are the life-blood of the middle class and the area of greatest jobs growth.  SME's create new jobs, contribute to the community, and produce needed products.

Yaskawa Motoman
Two-armed Factory Robot
A few years ago, in Europe, the EU recognized the need to support SME businesses with improved robotics - robotics that were easily trainable, safe to work alongside, relatively inexpensive and flexible enough to handle all sorts of ad hoc tasks in any quantity. The EU invested in the development of SME robots because they felt that without their investment production efficiencies couldn't be maintained and more and more manufacturing would move offshore. The SME project ended early in 2009 and the consortium members quickly brought products to market that address the needs of SME's. These include two-armed robots, safety sensors and train-by-example programming. The EU also invested in the PiSa Project which had a similar goal.  The pi4-robotics "workerbot" mentioned above is the result of that effort. Motoman's two-armed robot is an outgrowth of the SME project and is presently replacing older robots in the Mercedes factories.

America doesn't have a national robotics agenda (roadmap) just yet even though there is effort in that direction. Congress was presented with a roadmap in May, 2009. There has been some movement from the Obama Administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy including some SBA funding and some targeted areas of robotic development funding opportunities from five different government agencies. But robotics are not yet on the national agenda - there's no U.S. Robotics Initiative as there is for other areas of development.

Nor is there a real training and retraining mechanism for keeping up with the changing technological landscape. Instead, we fear losing jobs rather than understanding that we will instead change the mix of workers (as is generally the case when robots enter the picture).  Yes we have FIRST programs, and interesting robo-competitions all oriented to interest students in STEM education. But we are very lax in our science education overall and really don't have a national reeducation program for our workforce.

What America has is an entrepreneurial system of funding (which I described back in January ("Financing the Strawberry Project")) supplemented by irregular special purposes like national defense (DARPA), homeland security and space exploration. If an inventor/business has a good enough idea to get past the angel investors and on to the real VCs, he/she will get enough money to get it off the ground.  It's part salesmanship, part product, and timing, rather than an outgrowth of a national agenda to help society.

It's great to wish Heartland Robotics well but it isn't right that they are America's only knight in shining armor (if it turns out that they really are). Also, if they are successful they will be contributing to the jobs issue by changing the mix of workers from low-skilled to highly skilled. Without a retraining program in place, there will likely be serious repercussions, a lot of bad press, and slowdowns.

Bill Gates, Samsung, the government of South Korea, Toyota, Ray Kurzweil and many others are predicting that there will be a robot in our homes, companies and cars in this decade.  It truly is a political issue - one of technological complexity, national importance and economic strategy - to make sure that we don't derail ourselves with pettiness, greed, apathy and inaction.