Saturday, July 20, 2013

Paradigm Shift

By Frank Tobe, Editor & Publisher, The Robot Report

Global Future 2045, held June 15-16 in New York City, had a big impact on me.

The double-message promotion of GF2045 was intriguing and I thought it would be similarly interesting to my readers. PR stories featured the host, a wealthy young Russian, who wanted to discuss life-extension technologies, in effect, transhumanism. Two different tracts were advertised: (1) We should think about and discuss the ramifications of the technological transformations of humanity under way or likely to happen in the next 30 years, and (2) He commissioned a human-like intelligent robot in his likeness with terabytes of his personal data and this was to be presented at the show.
"We will devote particular attention to enabling the fullest possible dialogue between scientists, prominent figures from society and industry and representatives of the world's major spiritual traditions in order to explore the prospects of android robotics; brain-computer interfaces; cognitive neuro prostheses; engineering of the human brain; human consciousness and more. The conference will discuss key topics such as the transformation of humanity; intelligent evolution; the emergence of an immortal meta-intelligence at the planetary scale; and much more" said Dmitry Itskov, host of GF2045.
The roster of speakers appeared to be a group supportive of (or at least ancillary to) Ray Kurzweil's Singularity projections and, since Kurzweil was also a speaker, I was eager to see and hear everything from all of the speakers. Thus I flew to New York to report on the event.

The first speaker was James Martin, an ex-IBM software engineer instrumental in developing the Sabre real-time reservation system for American Airlines. He was a lanky 6'5" British man with a kind face and an ease at the podium. His message was simple: we are totally unprepared for the extreme paradigm shifts that need to happen in the near future. Technology and other driving forces have enabled explosive change yet we are making massive mistakes. If we don't correct them, nature will -- brutally.

Keynote speaker James Martin citing the list of new technologies, each infinite in all directions.
He cited a long list of emerging technologies, each with a momentum of it's own and each without regard for the others. He also described his recent activities and interest in identifying global problems — climate change, overpopulation, rampent technological change, environmental withering — which have been worsened by past technologies and asserted that these could be addressed by new technologies. In a book and film, “The Meaning of the 21st Century,” he argued that the human race had only a short time to change its wasteful ways before the planet was irreparably harmed. "The technology to solve the problems is either available or developing; what is missing is broad education and political will," he said. “A naïve view of the past is that technology gives us mastery over nature. A more appropriate view is that advanced technology causes us to need even more advanced technology in order to survive.” He said that he had established the Oxford Martin School to address four issues: health and medicine; energy and the environment; technology and society; and ethics and governance.

His presentation inspired me to go upstairs afterwards and interview him. But since I hadn't heard of him before, nor read any of his writings, I wasn't prepared and could only express my appreciation for his presentation, talk about his home in Bermuda, and ask about the Oxford Martin School. He suggested I watch "Revolution in Oxford" and then get back to him for a more in-depth conversation.


Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation and co-founder of Singularity University, said: "The power to do great always comes with the power to do harm."  After digesting James Martin's presentation, Diamandis' quote struck me as evidence of a paradigm shift in my thinking in relation to robotics. There is greatness in robotics and there is also consequence. And we need to look at the industry, and our roles, with the broader view that Martin described.

After the conference I returned to Greece where I had been vacationing, downloaded "Revolution in Oxford" and was showing it and describing Martin's talk, my impressions and personal revelation, and my intent to meet him again, to my friends.


NY Times photo: Tom King
James Martin left New York and flew home to Bermuda. A few days later, on June 24th, he went swimming nearby his home, had a heart attack and, tragically, died.

A friend whom I had told of the conference and Martin, saw an obituary in a British paper and showed it to me. I was shocked and saddened. Although I barely knew him he had inspired me to rethink in a way I appreciated... and I wanted more. Part of my shock was that there would be no "more" with him. My sadness continues to this day.

The NY Times' obituary said that Martin viewed "mankind's onrushing future with alarm and excitement" and that he used his considerable fortune to address his concerns. The Oxford Martin School was his most visible expression but his extensive speaking schedule supplemented that effort.

I am familiar with the calamitous thinking involved with paradigm shifts. In fact, I had a paradigm shift similar to what Diamandis described ("The power to do great always comes with the power to do harm") many years ago. It caused years of deep thinking and led to a career change.
In relation to robotics, I've read robo-ethicists Noel Sharkey, Ronald Arkin, George Bekey and Patrick Lin but up until now, haven't taken them seriously -- I thought them premature, dramatic or single-subjected. Alarmist headlines had turned me off to the subject: "March of the killer robots"; "Big robot is watching you"; "Robot wars are a reality"; "Stop the robot war"; "America's mindless killer robots must be stopped" - these are just a few of the headlines stemming from Noel Sharkey's Stop Killer Robots campaign. Nevertheless, Noel Sharkey and the other robo-ethicists have real issues that are important to discuss and that brings me back to James Martin.

The Oxford Martin School headlines "Exploring new frameworks for addressing ethical and governance challenges in a complex and interconnected world" and has research teams focused on:
Advanced robotics are estimated to have an annual economic impact of $2-4 trillion by 2025 and directly touch the lives of hundreds of millions of people. From design aspects to laws and regulation, the ethical and governance challenges are immense and complex and cannot afford to be tuned out. Hence the paradigm shift for which I gratefully acknowledge the inspiration of James Martin.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A dilemma of high risk high reward

The following article by Frank Tobe, editor and publisher of The Robot Report,
first appeared on in their special focus series: High-risk / High-reward.

Often funding sources - the groups taking the risk - are not the beneficiaries of the rewards of the venture. Intuitive Surgical and Rethink Robotics are two examples.

NSF, DARPA and NASA funded a project to solve a very real problem: providing medical attention to Americans in remote places such as space, war or scientific expeditions. The initial concept was to be a telepresence project but with no known solution. That was the high-risk research project funded by the three agencies.

During the development phase, two enterprising team members, Frederic Moll and Robert Younge, concluded that true remote-presence surgery couldn't be achieved with then-current technology but could be achieved within a controlled network, and by so doing there would be many benefits to the surgeons and patients involved. The two wrote a business plan, got venture money and proceeded to develop the system now known as the da Vinci Surgical System within a company subsequently named Intuitive Surgical.
Shortly before going public, and before getting FDA approval, Intuitive Surgical was sued for patent infringement by Computer Motion, Inc., which had its own system, the ZEUS Robotic Surgical System - a system which was already approved for use in Europe. 
The litigation was resolved in 2003 when the two companies agreed to merge, thus ending the litigation. The ZEUS system was ultimately phased out in favor of the da Vinci system. The litigation created an active depository of intellectual properties - hundreds of patents and trade marks - which Intuitive Surgical has vigorously defended in a way that has created a competitive void in the commercialization of similar devices and systems.
Intuitive Surgical's new da Vinci single port system.
Consequently Intuitive Surgical has grown to be a growth company with large profits and is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange (NASDAQ:ISRG). But it didn't exactly happen with the high risk high reward formula. Intuitive Surgical and it's VC backers got the reward and NSF, DARPA and NASA are still searching for their solution.
SRI and Stanford University did get money for licenses to use the technologies they developed, but not the huge rewards stemming from the successes of Intuitive Surgical.


As is often the case in startups, the solutions and products that finally emerge in the marketplace are ones that are different from those that initiated the startup. Sometimes this involves changes in funders, partners and ownership and those that reap the final rewards are often removed from the originating project.

High risk takers are most often governmental agencies with a strategic social/political issue to resolve. Corporate R&D departments also invest in future scenarios but to a lesser extent - they most often pragmatically acquire the technology they need and rework it to fit their specific requirements.

Hence the dilemma: does the initial risk taker expect to get the double reward of (1) product solution and (2) profits from their sale, or just the altruistic reward of seeing that their initial problem for which they are risking their money is being addressed in the broader marketplace solving the original problem, reward or not?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

China now largest market for robots

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

View from the exhibition floor at CIROS, July 2-5, Shanghai.
The China International Robot Show CIROS was held July 2-5 in Shanghai. 30,000 people were expected to attend and 56 companies exhibited. Although most of the exhibitors were Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, German and other international robot vendors and their Chinese integrators, there were many new Chinese robot makers as well.

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) hasn't counted robots manufactured in China because the IFR is dependent on country robot associations for their data and up until this year there hasn't been such an association in China. The new China Robot Industry Alliance (CRIA) was recently established to enable China's new robot makers to have a lobbying presence within China and a statistical presence with the IFR.

IFR President Dr. Shinsuke Sakakibara
According to the IFR's President Dr. Shinsuke Sakakibara at a press conference preceding CIROS, China is forecast to exceed Japan and the USA as the largest market for robots, particularly when in-country manufactured robots are included in the tally, sometime in 2014.

But Ilian Bonev, an Associate Professor in Robotics at the École de technology supérieure in Montreal, Canada, in a recent post, suggests that China probably already has become the largest user of industrial robots in the world. Citing data from the IFR which showed that 23,000 robots were sold into China in 2012, Bonev added 9,800 robots manufactured by six major Chinese vendors giving a total of 32,800 - 4,000 greater than the 28,700 sold into Japan in 2012. Hence his claim that China has already become the largest buyer of robots.
And this doesn't include Foxconn's Foxbots - the robots produced in Taiwan for Foxconn's factories in mainland China. Foxconn already has 20,000 robots at work in it's factories according to CEO Terry Gou. Yet these are not reported by the IFR because Foxconn isn't a member of the Taiwanese Robot Association (TAIROA) nor are they reported as a Chinese manufacturer or a member of the new CRIA.
About 70% of the total number of robots produced in 2012 went to Japan, China, the US, Korea and Germany. Sales to Japan rose slightly to 28,700 units and 22,400 for the U.S. Between 2005 and 2012, sales of industrial robots into China increased by about 25% on average per year. Based on an IFR chart, welding is the main use of those robots followed by handling, assembly, dispensing and cleanroom robotics.

Robot density as a predictor of future demand

The IFR attempts to measure robot density, i.e., the number of robots used per 10,000 persons employed in the manufacturing/automotive industry. IFR figures for 2011 show South Korea's measure is 347, Japan is 339, Germany is 261 while China is 15. The implication is that there is much room to grow in those countries with low density figures. The USA, with a density rating of 130, can also foresee growth in the purchase and deployment of robots.

China's roadmap for development

China's National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Science and Technology, will soon publish guidelines for the development of their industrial robotics industry. The "guidelines will include plans for the development of the industry, with market oriented enterprises being the mainstay. Strategies will center on breakthroughs in key technologies, so as to form a robot industry structure that is internationally competitive." The process is very similar to America's Roadmap for U.S. Robotics developed and presented to the American Congress in 2009 by an industry coalition. It provided key holdups that needed solutions before critical areas of the industry could grow. Congress has been paying attention as can be seen by the recent manufacturing and robotic initiatives and corresponding fundings.

Qu Daokui, President, Siasun Robot & Automation Co., Ltd, said,
"China is now at the stage of industrial transformation. To achieve the goal, China has to gradually change from labor-intensive style to a more sustainable and innovative development. Robots play a crucial role in supporting the process. It helps Chinese enterprises to reduce cost and increase efficiency and competitiveness. 
"It is forecast that China will have 40 million less workers in the 20-30 age bracket in the next decade compared to ten years ago, because of the aging population. Robots are expected to fill the gap."