Saturday, June 22, 2013

Global Future 2045 Takes A Hard Look At Today

By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report

Dmitry Itskov, a wealthy Russian Internet entrepreneur, hosted and sponsored last weekend's Global Future 2045, an event organized to highlight the state of present day science and its relentless exponential march toward 2045, the year of the Singularity, the year when computers are expected to surpass the human brain.

Itskov, a couple of years back, had a “spiritual change” that made him question the values of wealth and spending on luxury items. Since then he has pursued what he calls a global initiative to create “a new species free from the limits of biology.” Hence GF2045.

2045 is a significant milestone because, according to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil (a keynote speaker at GF2045), it is the year when the power of the human brain will be surpassed by that of the computer and also when we may merge with our machines and biotech to live indefinitely.

The media have headlined the far out projections, claims and items included in GF2045's program - the androids, the prospect of brain enhancement, of life without death - instead of reporting Itskov's intended purpose for the conference: to raise awareness and concern about the unrelenting march of science without consideration for the prospect of a loss of humanity.

Headlines preceding the Global Future 2045 Congress proclaimed: WORLD’S MOST HUMAN-LIKE ANDROID TO BE UNVEILED AT GF2045.
“The Dmitry Avatar-A head represents the most expressive facial robot in history and far exceeds the life-like characteristics of previous robot portraits of humans in both technology and artistry,” stated Dr. David Hanson. “The Dmitry Avatar-A head can establish eye contact, recognize faces, and carries out natural spoken conversation.

In addition to the press releases, an in-depth NY Times article by David Segal described how it was being built, showed pictures of the work in progress, told what it was to do, and the personality and language characteristics that it was to incorporate.

Well it didn't happen. None of it. Hanson was late and Itskov didn't like the robot in it's unfinished state. So the robot, Hanson and his AI partner Dr. Ben Goertzel were dropped from the program. Read the details here.

But there was still Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro and his look-alike. Dr. Ishiguro showed off the little touches that make his androids so special: subconscious movement as well as reactive movement, e.g., the robot moves it's eyes, posture and gestures every once in a while - just like you do - as it sits idly.

Many of the speakers Itskov selected suggested that the public, our legislators, and our corporations have been flying 35,000 feet over their economic, environmental and other troubles. Global Future 2045 is therefore a call for a forced landing, with eyes wide open, and a willingness to see and talk about problems in their full context and inter-relatedness. In his opening remarks Itskov stated:
“We are really at the time when technology can affect human evolution. I want us to shape the future, bring it up for public discussion, and avoid any scenario that could damage it.”

Day 1's keynote speaker was a thought-provoking talk by James Martin, the founder of the Oxford Martin School, in Oxford, UK. He described how we are faced with multiple extreme paradigm shifts as more and more of the world becomes digital and subject to software enhancements; shifts in the way we think about things that didn't previously have a software solution -- dangers that could just as easily thwart our growth -- or be antithetical to that growth.

Martin described the process leading to 2045 as supremely challenging and Darwinian and that serious crunches were coming. Crunches in long-term thinking: China has the discipline and history to think long term while the US and EU do not. Corporations do but their ethics are different. Only corporations could use manipulation to market "Coal is Clean" and other similar campaigns.

He talked about how the Oxford Martin School puts teams together for each critical global issue needing a solution... teams composed of all the experts who are working toward that solution so that cross-pollination of disciplines and ideas occurs. Talking with him afterward, he steered me to a video about the process called "Revolution in Oxford." I highly recommend watching it.

Day 2's keynote was delivered by Ray Kurzweil under the banner "Immortality by 2045." He told of the grand transformation where biology and other medical technologies have become digital and therefore available to analysis and simulation. Some notable quotes:
"We are approaching a time when we can treat our biology as software and reprogram it." 
"There will be a time soon when we will add more time faster than time going by." 
"We are going to have to deal with the coexistence of open source and proprietary markets - as we do presently with books, music and college courses." 
"The world of physical things is now fully digital."
[As an aside, Kurzweil described what he is doing working as Director of Engineering at Google: developing a computer-simulation of the neo cortex to understand human queries. He is also working with pattern recognition modules (which he calls metaphor machines) to take a pattern from one field and apply it to many different inputs. Thus he's being asked to enable computers to understand and speak just like humans, in effect, creating machines that can think and reason like the human brain.]


Other speakers included philosophers, ethicists, a man with a bionic arm, brain interface developers and neuro-prosthetics engineers, AI theorists, and a very colorful panel of global interfaith / spirituality leaders, all discussing the progress of, and implications and consequences of brain emulation, mapping and reverse engineering.

Bottom line of all of the interfaith / spiritual speakers was to emphasize that we are preoccupied with the "how" of change and not the "why." That it's not science fiction that is happening; it is real and needs our attention and focus on the future. That change needs to be balanced with the spirit of humanism and, most importantly, we need a strategy to handle this inevitable transition.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation and co-founder of Singularity University, gave the best one-liner of the conference:
"The power to do great always comes with the power to do harm."

[This was the second GF2045; the first one was held in Moscow in 2012.]

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

World's Most Human-Like Android Wasn't Unveiled at GF2045

Headlines preceding the Global Future 2045 Congress proclaimed: WORLD’S MOST HUMAN-LIKE ANDROID TO BE UNVEILED AT GF2045
“The Dmitry Avatar-A head represents the most expressive facial robot in history and far exceeds the life-like characteristics of previous robot portraits of humans in both technology and artistry,” stated David Hanson. “The Dmitry Avatar-A head can establish eye contact, recognize faces, and carries out natural spoken conversation.
"Facial expressions were created with 36 degrees of freedom (servomotors) with high-resolution sensors in the eyes. The Dmitry Avatar-A head also benefits from a new hyper-expressive formulation of Hanson’s proprietary nanotech material called “Frubber,” a spongy, structured elastic polymer that expertly mimics the movement of real human musculature and skin, as well as new mechanisms for improved facial expressions," explained Hanson. 

In addition to the press releases, an in-depth NY Times article by David Segal described how it was being built, showed pictures of the work in progress, told what it was to do, and the personality and language characteristics that it was to incorporate.

Well it didn't happen. None of it.

Rumor had it that Hanson was running late. His day 1 speaking spot was moved to day 2. But as day 2 progressed Hanson still hadn't arrived. GF2045 staff stretched the various talks and roundtables. At 5:30 of day 2, in a flurry of rushing people, Hanson and his wife and child arrived and were immediately whisked away to a stage anteroom with not a single comment to the waiting press and camera crews (and not an android head in sight; not even big unmarked boxes). At 6 pm Dmitry Itskov had a choice: extend the conference to add Hanson and his AI partner Ben Goertzel, or give his summary and farewell remarks with perhaps a comment or two about why the new android didn't appear. He chose to ignore the situation and ended the conference with his summary statement.

Those of us who came to see the new Hanson head, Goertzel's AI, and Itskov gestures, went away disappointed.

In an official statement released by the the 2045 press crew, Dmitry said:
“We so appreciate the patience and support of everyone waiting for what we thought might be a concluding crescendo to the congress. But just like many other technological advances, failure is sometimes a part of the road to success. While we had hoped to see the android head in full working order weeks ago, there were delays and it arrived in a much too premature condition to show to the public. We hope that we can show you something very soon.” 
I asked David Hanson what had happened and he replied by email:
I'm sorry! I worked hard to finish the robot in time, but it proved impossible.  Actually my team and I worked all night Friday and Saturday, arriving in NYC on Sunday afternoon. Because the robot wasn't finished to his satisfaction, Dmitry canceled our talk and chose not to show the robot. I understand his decision and regret the inconveniences to you and everyone who came to see me and Ben. My robots are complex works of art, and this is the most complex and ambitious one I've made yet. I know there are risks and uncertainties that come along with making such robots; however, it's heartbreaking to me to miss this deadline, and I am sorry. 
Hopefully Hanson will get the new avatar to work to Dmitry's satisfaction and Dmitry will show it to the public soon. I can't wait!

By the way, the GF2045 conference was really interesting and worthwhile. I'll have another posting on that shortly.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Don't throw out the baby with the bath water

By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report

University of Sheffield (UK) AI and Robotics Professor Noel Sharkey (red tie) leading a group to protest killer robots.

There have been many headlines about "killer robots" and invasion of privacy. They protest that robots will soon choose targets and then bomb or shoot those targets under their own direction and will also invade people's privacy through the use of drones. The issue, without the hyperbole, is whether there should be controls, what those controls should be, and who should administer them so that when advanced autonomous versions of today's drones happen, as is sure to be the case 10-30 years from now, they won't have the capability to kill people without human and governmental supervision and observe without legal authority.

Drones aren't the only killer robots being discussed. There are also armed border robots in Israel and Korea, automatic missile defense systems on land and ships in many countries, and police surveillance drones. Except in the case of incoming missile defense, we don't presently have the artificial intelligence capabilities to autonomously pick targets and implement armed attacks. In fact, we are many years away from that reality. Yet the headlines are written as if it is already happening.

Armed with Hellfire missiles, General Atomics Predator drone prepares for take-off.
"Killer robots" is a "sell-papers" type of issue. It uses enflamed rhetoric because of America's prolonged and very public use of armed drones to kill terrorists (albeit with a committee of human pilots and operators that actually pull the trigger even though they are thousands of miles away from the action) and the anger and moral, ethical and legal backlash to that.

Nevertheless, these scary headlines, which call for banning drones of all types, are obscuring the worth of forthcoming commercial applications for unmanned and autonomous flying robots. Unmanned aerial vehicles and systems (UAV and UAS) in agriculture, for mapping and surveying, for search and rescue, disaster relief, science, border patrol and a myriad other applications will begin to appear in America in 2016 (earlier in the EU and Australia where they aren't as limited by the FAA as are the Americans).

There is no denying the commercial value of these new UASs. One story involving drones occurred recently in Haiti -- it has all the elements of smart business, enterprising activists, the fun of flying, and the pleasure of helping. But this story didn't receive any headlines.

Adam Klaptocz is an engineer and project manager with senseFly, a Swiss spin-off from the EPFL (and recently acquired by the Parrot Group). senseFly makes drones for mapping. Their eBee drone can take pictures down to 2" precision. Adam and another senseFly employee, Emanuele Lubrano, independently founded a non-profit organization, Drone Adventures, to focus on humanitarian, conservation and cultural uses of drones beyond just mapping. Their first project - funded entirely by donations and grants from the IOM - was a two-week trip to Haiti.
"When a natural disaster (such as an earthquake or a hurricane) changes the landscape of an entire city in just a few minutes, how can rescue teams search for survivors when satellite images no longer represent the state of the city? How can organizations distribute aid and coordinate reconstruction of dense urban areas that expand and change on a daily basis? 
"Such dire and complex situations are exactly where drones and their abilities shine! Drones are similar to light and inoffensive RC model planes but with some key differences: they have an artificial intelligence on-board that allows them to fly autonomously and make “flight decisions” (example: my battery is too low, better go back and land now). They are equipped with sensors for monitoring the flight in real time (GPS, altimeter, wind-speed sensor, etc.). They have a “payload” used to deliver a service; in the case of mapping it’s a camera used to take pictures of the ground from the sky."
Haiti has endured several recent natural disasters including a terrible earthquake at the beginning of 2010, a violent cholera epidemic at the end of 2010 and Hurricane Sandy at the end of 2012. Disasters not only result in casualties but they also change the landscape of the country; buildings and roads are destroyed and refugees create ever-moving encampments. There is a continuous need for up-to-date imagery for aid distribution, reconstruction and disaster relief.
"We arrived in Haiti with three eBee drones, a stack of computers running Pix4UAV by Pix4D and open minds. During our 10 days in the country we worked closely with our partners, IOM (International Organization for Migration) and Open Street Map, two organisations that have years of experience on the ground in Haiti.

"We covered over 45km2 of territory [about 11,000 acres] in 10 different areas during 6 days of intense mapping in some of the densest urban territory we’ve ever worked in to provide international organizations with the maps and 3D models they needed to do their jobs.
"Mapping of several dense shantytowns in Port-au-Prince, were used to count the number of tents and organize a “door-to-door” census of the population, the first step in identifying aid requirements and organizing more permanent infrastructure. 3D terrain models were also created to identify dangerous river beds in order to plan infrastructures and protect dense urban encampments from flooding.
"The terrain models will also be used to perform water-flow simulations and decide where to build infrastructure to mitigate flooding. We also provided 2D and 3D maps of the brand-new University of Limonade in the north of Haiti to help promote the school for the next generation of youth of Haiti.
"All the data that we generated has been made freely available through OpenStreetMap to all the great people we met during this mission, and without whom this mission would not have been possible."
The Drone Adventures video below shows the fun, the involvement, the flexibility and the need. Bravo to these two adventurers and their new organization.

Although Parrot and senseFly didn't fund Drone Adventures, they think the project is creative and might want to take part in future missions.

I'm worried that all the negative headlines - and fear reactions to those headlines - may lead to legislation which could hamper the natural emergence of this new and very capable technology. Hence the headline of this article: Don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

An inspiring article by a future roboticist

[In July, 2011, I interviewed and then wrote about an inspiring high school teacher who spearheaded the founding of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, was the 2010 recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellow award, and is the lead character in the book The New Cool by Neal Bascomb which tells the story of his high school's winning entry in the 2008 F.I.R.S.T. robotics competition.

Below is a story about a similar science program and series of robotics competitions in a small town 40 miles north of Atlanta, Georgia. It is written by a high school junior, Brandon Gross, who asked to write about his and his fellow student enthusiasts and their program. 

The underlying issues in both stories are the same: using competitive robotics to stimulate STEM training in middle and high schools and the need for mentoring and local business participation.]

By Brandon Gross, Forsyth Central High School, Cumming, GA

High school is where students learn important skills to function as capable members of the community -- but not necessarily about the concepts and components of why or how something works. This is where the STEM Academy at Forsyth Central High School comes into play. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) are an important aspect in everyone’s lives and are often overlooked; my high school did not even have funding for an engineering department until our STEM Academy was founded.

Our robotics program is under the umbrella of the Forsyth Alliance, which is home to teams that participate in First Robotics Competition (FRC), First Lego League (FLL), VEX Robotic Competitions, Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST), and Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) robotics. The main goal of the Alliance is to put a robotics team in every school in Forsyth County, GA, and they are close to achieving that.

The Alliance was founded in 2005, and started with a single FRC team made up from two of the five high schools in the county. Now, just 8 years later, the Forsyth Alliance has three FRC teams and hosts some of the largest qualifiers for FLL and VEX in the state.

Robotics engineering is important for the future and encompasses many different disciplines, e.g.: mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer hardware and software development, industrial engineering, and more. Robotics in school is a great tool to teach the key skills that a employer would want to hire. Robotics is also a perfect match for STEM, as it meets all the criteria that STEM requires.

Forsyth Central High School’s STEM Academy has achieved great things: our first year brought several teams to the Forsyth Vex Robotics qualifier. 40 teams competed, 2 placed in the top 16, and one of the teams competed in the Finals. That team received the “Build Award” for a competing robot that is very robust. The following year, three teams participated in a tournament at the South Forsyth Vex Qualifier. Two of the teams were knocked out in the final match against the home team but one of the teams received the “Judges Award” for design process and documentation. Later that year, five teams from my school returned to compete at the Forsyth Qualifier. Three made it to the Finals, and one won the tournament and qualified for the Vex World Competition. The same team also took home trophies for highest drivers score, and highest autonomous skills score. In FRC, Forsyth Central H.S. competed at the Peachtree Regional, and placed 6th (but was knocked out in the Finals).

Much of our achievements are due to the help of our teacher and mentor, Mr. David Johnson who provides knowledge and input wherever students require it. He also pushes them to be creative and solve things on their own. Mr. Johnson puts in more hours than many teachers and coaches, receiving the payment of only satisfaction seeing a team succeed.

The Forsyth Alliance’s primary sponsor is Automation Direct, a national electronics parts sales company headquartered in Cumming, GA. Automation Direct provides startup money for all new robotics teams in the county, and has been a crucial component in the development of the robotics community at Forsyth. They also provide the resource of time with valuable mentors. Mentors such as Rick Folea (primary founder of the Forsyth Alliance), who are invaluable resources to the teams. Their motto is “Real Engineers, Real Mentors, and Real Projects.”

Back left to right : Emily Brickell, Trent Callan, Jacob Boyer, Bradley Shuford, Brandon Gross
Front left to right: Drew Mclean, Richard Garcia, Caleb Puentes. 
Forsyth Central H.S. competed against 412 other teams from several countries at the Vex World Championship in Anaheim, California in April, 2013. Our team had many issues such as tripping motors and bent axles. But we pushed through the problems and kept our heads high, and managed to get our act together by the last day. We ended with a 3-7 win-loss record, two of the wins coming from the last day of competition. We also ended with a 195 point driver’s skills score, placing us at 39th in the world. Instead of sleeping on our flights home, we started designing and brainstorming for our next robot. The team found their first world competition was an invaluable experience, and hope to compete at a much higher level the following season.

This summer, our school is the official service department for our local Sheriff’s bomb squad robots. We are in charge of fixing one of the robots, and revamping another. On one of the robots they are adding a manipulator to drag suspicious bags away from the general public. The team hopes to see the real life application of their robotic knowledge from working on these robots.

My school is hosting a Vex robotics summer camp for 6th graders. The goal is to inspire young students to take an interest in robotics and STEM. The camp is 5 days long and will involve lessons on gear ratios, programming, space management, and teamwork. The teams will also be given a budget that they must manage to build a robot. The student teams will compete against each other (and maybe even a few high school robots) for trophies on the final day. Hopefully these students will be inspired enough to continue the legacy that the current class of Forsyth Central has created.

Also this summer, our robotics team and our Technology Student Association are making an engineering/robotics presentation in front of the local Rotary Club to gain exposure and educate the community about the exciting experiences we have accomplished.

I hope that many other schools in the USA get involved in offering STEM and Engineering/Robotics programs to their students as the future holds many outstanding opportunities in the employment arena for all involved. It takes many people in the community to make programs such as ours successful. I personally want to thank each and every one of them for the time and money they have invested into my education to help make my dreams come true and my future bright.