Thursday, May 12, 2011

Workplace Robots Need a Better View

A coming wave of industrial robots will be smart enough to work safely alongside humans in many different settings, says Rodney Brooks, a professor emeritus of robotics at MIT and a founder of iRobot.

Industrial robots have evolved little since the first ones appeared in General Motors factories about 50 years ago, Brooks says. Most workplace robots—such as those used in car manufacturing—are designed to perform simple, repetitive tasks. And they lack the sensory smarts to work safely alongside humans.

"I think there's room for a real revolution by putting sensors and computation into industrial robots," says Brooks. "What if the robots were smarter and they could go into smaller companies and be easier for ordinary people to use?"

If manufacturing robots could recognize their human coworkers and interact with them safely Brooks says they could be used in many more manufacturing environments, assisting with repetitive and physically demanding manual tasks.

In 2008, Brooks founded a new company, called Heartland Robotics, to develop robots for manufacturing. The company has said that its robots will be intelligent, adaptable, and inexpensive. But the company is still in stealth mode, and hasn't revealed what technologies these robots will use.

In the last few years, robotics researchers have made progress in machine vision, due in part to the falling cost of computer power, and the photo and image resources that can be pulled from the Web and used to train computer vision systems to recognize different objects. However, Brooks says, giving machines more human-like vision remains one of the biggest challenges to the development of more practical robots.

"Perception is really, really hard. For robots, I think it's largely unsolved," says Brooks. "Image-based recognition has worked surprisingly well, [but] it can't do the recognition that a three-year-old child can do."

Commercial machine vision systems are still usually focused on a narrow task. For example, some cars now come equipped with a system that can identify pedestrians and other vehicles, even in a cluttered scene. The system, developed by Mobileye, based in Israel, is connected to an onboard computer that applies the brakes if a collision seems imminent.

"This is the first wide-scale, highly demanding use of computer vision," says Amnon Shashua, the Sachs professor of computer science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a cofounder of Mobileye.

Shashua says the company's computer vision system works well because it only has to identify a handful of objects. But he hopes that within the next five years, the system will be able to reliably recognize almost everything within a scene. "There are at least 1,000 object classes you need to know in an image to at least do semi-autonomous driving," including signs, lights, guard rails, poles, bridges, exits, and more, he said during a symposium on artificial intelligence at MIT last week.

Mobileye is developing specialized hardware to support the specific demands of rapid image recognition. "There's still a long way to go to build hardware that is efficient, low cost, low power, that can do very complex computer vision," Shashua adds.

Better machine vision systems might lead to significant advances in robotics. "How we deploy our robots is limited by what we can do with perception, so improvements in perception will lead them to be smarter and have modicums of common sense," says Brooks.


  1. "The company has said that its robots will be intelligent, adaptable, and inexpensive."

    And thus, SKYNET was born.

  2. Seriously, robots dominating mankind and taking over the world is not that far away. Other than that, great post. lol

  3. I i think it is more likely that what we think of robots today wont ever happen, but every little thing in our lives will soon become extremely sophisticated, (Signs, roads, doors) with sensors and outputs that we dont even notice...

  4. Looks like robotics are going forward all the time, never really thought of it other than when I see it in the news.. I still think that we are very far away from working alongside them like you do with your coworkers at the store, though.

  5. Five years, eh? With the way that technology advances, I really don't doubt it.

  6. What will happend to all the people who will get fired and replaced by robots??

  7. Do we really want robots to become... more intelligent? Surely it's better if we have more control..?

  8. Funny how everyone in the 50s(etc) thought we'd have robots doing everything for us by now.

  9. great news, maybe this kind of system can be used for the visually impaired too

  10. That will be great. I'm seeing images of iRobot, but I guess these robots would be more machine like. Not sure about all the computers in new cars though. I wouldn't like'm to malfunction and hit the brakes on a freeway.

  11. I think the problem is still, that robots have to compute every little data they sensor.
    Humans work more effective because only 10% of the data from for insance the eyes or the ear is really processed, everything else doesn't even reach the brain areal and is filtered before.
    The eyes for instance see only in a small spot really clear although we have the impression, that we got the full view. But thats only caused by a subconscious process that replaces missin data from experience.

  12. @pony, yeah, but I bet we get to see some cool things in our lifetime though.