Robots Learn to Talk to Each Other

Stephen DeAngelis

March 26, 2013

“As I gaze in the coming year’s crystal ball,” writes Miranda Mulligan, “I suspect that, at this time next year, we will be talking about 2013 being the rise of the robot.” [“The Rise of the Robot,” Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, 19 December 2012] On the other hand, George Dvorsky reports that instead of us talking about robots, robots may be talking about us. [“Robots can now collaborate over their very own Internet,” io9, 11 March 2013] He writes:

“One of the more serious limitations facing the robotics industry today is that each bot it produces is an island unto itself. Worse, robots’ primitive AI doesn’t allow for intuitive thinking or problem solving — what’s known as artificial general intelligence. Looking to overcome this problem, researchers from several different European universities have developed a cloud-computing platform for robots that will allow them to collaborate — and make each other smarter — over the Internet.”

Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is predicted to grow faster than human communication in the years ahead (see my post entitled Machine-to-Machine Communication). The new cloud-computing platform discussed by Dvorksy is “called Rapyuta: The RoboEarth Cloud Engine.” It “is an open source repository of accumulated information for robots. Its name is taken from the movie Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki, in which Rapyuta is the castle inhabited by robots.” Dvorsky included the following video as part of his article, which explains why cloud computing is essential if robots are going to get smarter.

Admittedly, most of us don’t have a Robby the Robot waiting to serve us. We’re lucky if we have a Roomba that relieves us of vacuuming. But researchers believe that more and more technologies are going to be developed that will allow robots to find their way into our daily lives. One reason this will occur is because, as the video show, much of the computational heavy lifting will be done in the cloud. Dvorsky reports, “The platform will allow robots who are connected to the Internet to directly access powerful computational, storage, and communications technologies, including those of modern data centers.” A news release from the AlphaGalileo Foundation states, “By making enterprise-scale computing infrastructure available to any robot with a wireless connection, the researchers believe that the new computing platform will help pave the way towards lighter, cheaper, more intelligent robots.” [“Cloud-computing platform for robots launched,” 11 March 2013] In that release, Mohanarajah Gajamohan, researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and Technical Lead of the project, stated:

“The RoboEarth Cloud Engine is particularly useful for mobile robots, such as drones or autonomous cars, which require lots of computation for navigation. It also offers significant benefits for robot co-workers, such as factory robots working alongside humans, which require large knowledge databases, and for the deployment of robot teams.”

Dvorsky admits this is exciting news, but he indicates “the concept is not without its problems.” He writes that two things in particular concern him.

“First, anything that’s connected to the Internet is inherently hackable. This system will need to be crazy secure, otherwise the robots could be controlled by a malicious source (either individually, or collectively). And second, the query response-and-match algorithms will need to be very strict to prevent a robot from getting the wrong instructions. For example, a robot could ask the cloud for instructions on how to perform task x, but the cloud-engine could misunderstand and provide it with instructions for task y. The robot, because it’s stupid, will then execute task y. This could be dangerous, and even potentially catastrophic in some contexts.”

A third concern is connectivity. We’ve all experienced dropped calls. It could be hazardous for a cloud-connected robot to lose connectivity during a critical activity. Although these concerns are genuine, smart people will discover ways to create failsafe systems and work-arounds. The fact of the matter is that, in the future, we are going to be working and living in much closer proximity to robots than we have in the past. Science fiction writers worry that M2M communication will result in robots talking behind our backs (or over our heads) to build their own society and eventually become the “Terminators” of movie fame. Moshe Y. Vardi, a professor of computational engineering at Rice University, notes that main villain in the Terminator movies was a cloud-like AI system called “Skynet, a self-aware artificial intelligence.” [“The Consequences of Machine Intelligence,” The Atlantic, 25 October 2012] Although Vardi doesn’t see the rise of Terminators anytime soon, like Mulligan, he does see robots making an ever greater impact in our lives. He writes:

“It is in the context of the Great Recession that people started noticing that while machines have yet to exceed humans in intelligence, they are getting intelligent enough to have a major impact on the job market. … While the loss of millions of jobs over the past few years has been attributed to the Great Recession, whose end is not yet in sight, it now seems that technology-driven productivity growth is at least a major factor. Such concerns have gone mainstream in the past year, with articles in newspapers and magazines carrying titles such as ‘More Jobs Predicted for Machines, Not People,’ ‘Marathon Machine: Unskilled Workers Are Struggling to Keep Up With Technological Change,’ ‘It’s a Man vs. Machine Recovery,’ and ‘The Robots Are Winning.'”

In light of the recent “rise of the robots,” Vardi recalls an article written in 2000 for Wired magazine by Bill Joy, whom he calls “a very mainstream technologist as co-founder of Sun Microsystems.” The article was entitled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Vardi insists some 13 years on, Bill Joy’s question deserves an answer. He writes:

“Does the future need us? By this I mean to ask, if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do? I have been getting various answers to this question, but I find none satisfying. A typical answer to my raising this question is to tell me that I am a Luddite. (Luddism is defined as distrust or fear of the inevitable changes brought about by new technology.) This is an ad hominem attack that does not deserve a serious answer. A more thoughtful answer is that technology has been destroying jobs since the start of the Industrial Revolution, yet new jobs are continually created. The AI Revolution, however, is different than the Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century machines competed with human brawn. Now machines are competing with human brain. Robots combine brain and brawn. We are facing the prospect of being completely out-competed by our own creations. Another typical answer is that if machines will do all of our work, then we will be free to pursue leisure activities. The economist John Maynard Keynes addressed this issue already in 1930, when he wrote, “The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption.” Keynes imagined 2030 as a time in which most people worked only 15 hours a week, and would occupy themselves mostly with leisure activities. I do not find this to be a promising future. First, if machines can do almost all of our work, then it is not clear that even 15 weekly hours of work will be required. Second, I do not find the prospect of leisure-filled life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being. Third, our economic system would have to undergo a radical restructuring to enable billions of people to live lives of leisure. Unemployment rate in the US is currently under 9 percent and is considered to be a huge problem. Finally, people tell me that my concerns apply only to a future that is so far away that we need not worry about it. I find this answer to be unacceptable. 2045 is merely a generation away from us. We cannot shirk responsibility from concerns for the welfare of the next generation.”

I agree with Vardi that a future filled with nothing but leisure activity doesn’t sound very fulfilling (or likely). The much more likely scenario is that robots, as they learn to communicate better, will eventually become “Collaborators” with humans rather than their Terminators. Obviously, there is still much to be worked out. If robots and humans to do collaborate much more closely in the years ahead, then robots will need to learn how to interact better with their less robust colleagues. To that end, Alicia Clegg reports that some researchers are studying how to teach robots some much-needed manners. [“Robots take lessons in body language,” Financial Times, 28 June 2012] Clegg writes:

“While her colleagues pore over algorithms, debug software codes and tinker with articulated arms and gripper hands, Leila Takayama has been teaching a new generation of robots some manners. A research scientist at Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley robot developer, her etiquette lessons are basic ? move to the left of a corridor when someone is approaching from the right, don’t hog the centre in an elevator when there are other passengers who want to get in. Nonetheless, how well her charges ? known as personal robots ? master such niceties could have a big bearing on the welcome that awaits them when they make it out of the laboratory and into wider society. Robots are already commonplace in factories, typically performing programmed tasks. Other specialised bots have been developed for hospital settings ranging from remote-controlled mobile robots, allowing doctors to examine patients over video-links, to delivery carts that ferry meals and medication around. Some homes boast robotic toys and robotic vacuum cleaners. But for robots to become more widespread, they need to be smart enough to cope with human idiosyncrasies whether in the living room or even out on the streets.”

As I’ve pointed out in past posts, humans really haven’t proven to be great prognosticators and so I’m not really expecting to walk the streets with robots any time soon. But AI systems will increasingly control the machines we use to make our lives safer, better, and more effective. M2M collaboration will play an important role in the future, even if machines only communicate directly with each other and not through a cloud-computing platform. So I say, let them talk.