Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rethink Robotics Launches Baxter the Robot

By Frank Tobe, editor/publisher, The Robot Report

Yesterday was the launch of Rethink Robotics' Baxter shop assistant robot.



Many reporters, including myself, saw Baxter at Rethink's headquarters in Boston in the past two months but were embargoed from writing about it until today, the launch date.

Looking at the stories - as they appear all over the web and in news print, three stand out, in my opinion, at the head of the class:
  1. the Rethink Robotics press release 
  2. the NY Times article and video by John Markoff 
  3. and the in-depth story in Spectrum by Ackerman and Guizzo
Markoff's story uses everyday language and is directed toward a wide audience - the kind of multi-layered audience, multi-interests audience unique to The NY Times; the Spectrum article is for engineers and roboticists.

As an aside, Markoff's article makes me ever more aware of the difference between a blogger/writer and a paid reporter from a reputable news source. John's article made me wish I could write like him. I saw what he saw, got the same demo, played with the machine similarly, heard the same details. But I came away disappointed.
  • John saw, as I did, that both arms don't work together. He wrote that they will in the next version. I couldn't imagine them bringing the product out without the arms working together (although they are aware of each other's location and can avoid hitting itself).
  • John saw, as I did, that it was big but he just described it as a 9' span that, with the stand, brings Baxter eye-level with a standing worker. I saw it as big and clunky.
  • John heard, as I did, that the price was $22,000 yet Brooks had been touting an affordable cost of less than $15,000 for a long time and cited polls that said that the price point for new shop tools was $15,000 or less. John just wrote the facts and let it go at that.
  • We both saw that the grasping mechanism was a two-fingered plastic device and heard that, in the future, third party mechanisms could be quickly retooled to enable Baxter to do different tasks. I thought this was an awkward solution and found that Baxter could only lift 5 pounds and didn't have enough torque to push/screw in a screw which, in my opinion, would be a necessary task for any shop assistant. John just showed what it could do with it's two fingers.
  • John described the need of small shops to augment their workers with robots which can do the dull, repetitive parts of their daily work much easier, thereby freeing up the worker to do higher-level tasks. But he didn't indicate that this version of Baxter is far away from offering that capability. Nor did he talk about other promises and expectations missing from this launch, namely an app store where Baxter's training can be transferred to other places where other Baxters are installed.
  • We both saw that Baxter's speed was slow and its precision not too precise but John just reported what he saw; I wondered how long it would take to speed up the processing and enhance the mechanisms to be more precise.
I could go on with the comparisons but, bottom line, John Markoff deserves to work for the NY Times because he reports things as they are. Opinion and spin are left to bloggers and PR people.

Markoff only writes a robotics story every month or so; Ackerman and Guizzo write every week or so. But every day there are hundreds of stories that need sifting to see whether they fall into News or Views and if News, whether the article is applicable for our readers as they do as we do: track the business of robotics.

I wrote this meandering message because of a quote I think appropriate about Baxter: George Carlin, the late comedian said: "Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist."

***

Other stories about Baxter and Rethink Robotics from reliable sources:

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Frank Review of the movie 'Robot & Frank'

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

My friends have been kidding me for months about the movie Robot & Frank (because my name is Frank, I've got gray hair, and I'm way into robots -- I research, edit and publish The Robot Report and this blog). I have a Photoshop'd poster with my picture instead of Frank's since, as news of the movie trickled out, they likened me to the crotchety character played by Frank Langella.

Actor Frank Langella on the left; robot analyst Frank Tobe on the right.

Finally, a few days ago, a group of us went to see it and, although it was sad and sweet, and generally a fun and entertaining movie to watch, it was a disappointment to me on many levels.

The story is about an older guy who lives alone in a rural area. Frank is grumpy, slovenly and abusive, except with the local librarian, whom he likes. His son drives a long distance to check up on him once a week and the visits aren't pleasant. His daughter is off in some foreign land taking photos. His ex-wife is long gone.

The story brightens when the son gives Frank a robot to help take care of him. It is purposed to lead him away from his curmudgeon state (which we later learn is dementia) toward a more healthy life. Frank, who at first hates the idea, finds that the robot is trainable and can do some things better than he can, like pick a lock or crack the combination on a safe. This excites him to once again do what he used to do: be a jewel thief. It's a mundane Robin Hood type plot but the two principal actors (Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon) make it a better film because they play their roles so convincingly. I don't want to tell more of the story because the movie is worth seeing.

From a robot enthusiast's point of view, however, the movie left a lot to be desired. First (and I hate to break this to you), the robot wasn't a robot after all. It may have looked like Honda's Asimo, but it was really Rachael Ma dressed up in a robot costume made by a Hollywood effects company (Altrerian). She walked and moved just like Asimo and moved her head empathically during periods of dialogue but it wasn't even a speaking part for her; a male actor read the lines that were the robot's voice.

Second, regarding the robot's voice, the director ended up printing out all of the robot lines in sequence and having Peter Sarsgaard read them straight through without watching the scenes. It yielded the best balance and consistency for their goal of robot-like speech. If it ended up sounding a little inhuman, that was fine.

The real issues about ethical, psychological and social concerns of a robot providing assistance and life coaching for a person with serious aging and psychological issues, or about a robot assisting or participating in illegal activities with that person were only lightly touched upon. Instead the issues were defined by the paradigm of living alone or in a residential care facility.

When asked by a reporter from The Christian Science Monitor about the ethical question of having robots take care of the elderly and replace human caregivers, director Jake Schreier replied:
I don't have an answer for that. I mean, we certainly touch on it. I think the key for [screenplay writer Christopher] Ford and I was to sort of make it ... you could call it a "future agnostic" movie. This is in the sense that it's not saying that robots are going to kill us, and it's not saying that they're the answer to all our problems. I think there are some issues with them, and there are some amazing things that they can do—and the future is like that. I think it's important to not be reflexively afraid of the future, to try to take in what's coming and try to look at all sides of it and see what the positives and negatives are. Hopefully the film lets you have that distance and form an opinion or let you have your own ideas about it, but it isn't leading you too strongly down one path or the other.
In another interview that appeared in The Huffington Post, the reporter asked Schreirer and Ford how they decided on the simple design of the robot, who looks a lot like Honda's walking ASIMO robot, and whether they ever considered other designs that were more futuristic and high tech.
JS: The segment of robot design aimed at elder care seems to be oddly focused on these little white spacemen. It's not just the ASIMO, Toyota has a similar one too, and there are others. We just felt it made sense to stay in that vein. I think they benefit from their simplicity -- it allows us to project more emotion onto them.

CF: The robot always had that kind of design, even from the original short I did in film school. I was taken by the image of this tiny little space suit-looking man walking around through a dusty old cottage. I know Jake always liked that image and it was the kernel that we tried to stay true to when we expanded it into a feature.
After the movie, as the credits rolled, there were cameo videos running alongside the credits showing many service robots doing bits and pieces of home or assistive tasks. Some of them were caring for the elderly, or interacting with real people playing chess, or cleaning up and doing various tasks. Each video clip was known to me for its limited present-day capability but hopeful for a more efficient and flexible near-term future similar to the futuristic robot in Robot & Frank.