Aibo’s Cousin, A Service Dog?

Earlier this week, Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak suggested that Robots will make humans their pets, as he has no doubt artificial intelligence will take over the world.   His paranoia comes on the heels of warnings by Elon Musk and Steven Hawking.  Human pets? Just the contrary, robots are now our service dogs.


This week in London researchers at King’s College and Sheffield Hallam University developed a new ‘robot on reins’ that can help blind people navigate using tactile sensors and vibrations. The proof-of-concept currently looks like a vacuum cleaner or lawnmower but future versions will be smaller and more lightweight for home use.  Engineers said that in addition to helping the blind, these robots could also benefit firefighters (e.g, by helping them moving through smoke-filled buildings to find people more easily).

The small mobile robots are equipped with sensors that lead the way, with the user following up to 3ft  behind holding a rein. A special sleeve covering the user’s arm would then be fitted with electronic micro-vibrators. This sleeve would turn the signals sent back by the robot into detailed data that the blind person, firefighter or other user would have been trained to interpret. These vibrations could also provide data about the size, shape and even the stiffness of any object it finds.


Jacques Penders, from Sheffield Hallam University, explained that the four-year project has seen the team using the tactile robot in a number of scenarios from a university gym to a smoke-filled cave in Germany. The team has also developed a so-called ‘tactile language’ for the robots and now plans to explore how reins and haptic signals could help older people in their homes. The robot can also sense any hesitation or resistance from the user and adjust its pace accordingly. In addition, it would be programmed to predict the follower’s next actions, based on the way they are moving as well as on their previous actions. In trials, blind-folded volunteers were guided by a robot, and by using an algorithm the robot could detect their level of trust (like my dog Buddy).

Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College London said, “we’ve made important advances in understanding robot-human interactions and applied these to a classic life-or-death emergency scenario where literally every second counts.  Robots on reins could add an invaluable extra dimension to firefighting capabilities.”


A firefighter has 20 minutes to get in and out before his oxygen tank expires, a blind person is helpless without his guide dog or cane, in both instances trust is paramount. I think Wozniak, Musk and Harking should remember Roosevelt’s inspiring message, “we have nothing to fear, except fear itself.”

Investing in the Robotics Sector

Last week, I got flak from one reader for broaching the subject of ethics and robotics.  This week, I was pleased to learn about Clearpath’s $11 million in financing for developing new “ethical” robots.  According to the press release issued by the company, the majority of the funding will be applied to R&D to expand into new applications as the market for robots is starting to heat up.

In addition to its focus on expanding its revenues, the company is also concerned about the direction of the industry as a whole. Last year, Clearpath joined the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a group of activists working for policies to prevent the production of autonomous devices that are able to fire weapons without human intervention.  As part of that, the company made a pledge that it would not play any role in the development of autonomous weaponized devices.

Clearpath-Robotics-Husky-e1426720202779-1940x1092According to Clearpath’s CEO, Matt Rendall, “There are no technical impediments to building killer robots…only policy can stop it. So we made the decision to put our stick in the ground and say ‘this is the line we will not cross.’ We hoped that if we put it out there, we’d get people talking about it.”

As an investor in the space, I have always felt that socially conscious companies succeed best, and Clearpath’s story is a remarkable in itself.  The company has gone from a small angel concern in 2010 to one of the leading providers of autonomous robots in the mining space.  Clearly, the company seems to be on the right path (pun intended) to take advantage of the burgeoning robotic revolution.

Clearpath’s capital raise is a sign of the overall growth of the industry.  This boom is being driven by new the demand for robots by small to mid-size companies.  As an example, China (the workshop for the world) became the largest buyer of industrial robots in 2013, as factories like Foxconn and others look to drive productivity in the face of labor costs and shortages.  According to the International Federation of Robotics, one in five robots sold globally in 2013 were bought by Chinese manufacturers, overtaking tech-savvy Japan for the first time.

Therefore it is no surprise that Rodney Brooks’ Rethink Robotics just closed on $26 million this week from Goldman Sachs and GE Ventures.  A large portion of the funds will go to support the rollout for Baxter’s younger (but more skilled) brother, Sawyer. Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer at Rethink Robotics, says China is likely to be a big market for its Sawyer robot. “China is being particularly hit by labour shortages and labour rates. We had one customer who recently went through the Chinese new year and 60 per cent of his employees did not return.”

Unveiled on Thursday, Sawyer is a single-armed robot that is more accurate, faster, and smaller than is older two-armed brother. This enables Sawyer to accomplish a wider range of tasks, such as machine tending and circuit board testing.  Sawyer enters the market with some competition from Denmark’s Universal Robots’ new UR3, a smaller table-top machine that can also be used to assemble, polish, glue and screw a range of components.  Today UR’s robots are used to pack millions of eggs and can also be found in Volkswagen’s Salzgitter engine plant in Germany.  Last year, Volkswagen said it plans to use robots to cope with a shortage of new workers caused by retiring baby boomers.

Dan Kara, robotics practice director at ABI Research, believes the latest models will help boost the number of collaborative robots being used in factories. “The dexterity of the new generation of co-operative robots is improving . . . and they have the added advantage of working safely and effectively in workspaces occupied by humans,” says Mr Kara.

Lightweight collaborative robots are cheaper, more dexterous, easier to move between tasks and do not require specialist programming skills.  Many of them can be taught new moves by simply taking the robot arm and moving it to show it what to do. The price tag for the new Sawyer robot is $29,000, compared with a six figure sum for an industrial robot. Universal Robots sells its flexible, lightweight robot arms for between €20,000 to €30,000. Obviously the price point equal to the annual salary of a human, makes these robots an attractive value proposition for small to mid-size factories.  In addition, many factories like Foxconn are employing robots to meet the stricter worker safety standards by their clients (i.e., Apple).  The question is when robots replace workers, will the humans be given new jobs that require greater skill and understanding that is not yet available in the current crop of robots…

Rethink has trialled Sawyer with several manufacturing companies, including Jabil, a US-based electronics company. It has received hundreds of pre-orders for the robot and plans to launch it widely next January.  But despite the excitement over human-machine collaboration, sales of co-bots are a small proportion of the 179,000 industrial robots sold each year. The majority of robot sales still continue to be the traditional, large caged machines (for the time being).

The good news is that the robotic revolution has arrived and the capital markets are waking up.  The bad news is ethical questions about robots and their interactions with humans will not go away (even if some of my readers wish they would) it is up to companies like Clearpath to lead the way before regulation forces the industry.

Chappie vs. Terminator

This past weekend box office hit (even with 29 rotten tomatoes) was the adorable robot, Chappie.  As observed by Gary Marcus of the New Yorker, Chappie takes his inspiration from real life artificial intelligence from iCub to Rodney Brook’s Baxter.  The big question being asked by everyone from Elon Musk to car insurance companies, are robots able to make moral decisions (even though many humans are unfortunately not).  These are big tasks ahead to live up to Isaac Asimov’s basic rules, starting with “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow another human being to come to harm.”

Chappie illustrates man’s robotic paranoia in the same vain as the Cyberdyne nightmare.  Today’s science is being inspired by yesterday’s science fiction as Researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, have created a self-propelled liquid metal made from a compound of gallium, indium and tin (think Terminator 2’s T-1000’s mimetic polyalloy). When drops of this liquid metal are immersed in a solution of sodium hydroxide and kept in contact with a flake of aluminum as fuel, the mixture moves about on its own for nearly an hour, traveling in circles, straight lines and even squeezing through complex shapes.


“The soft machine looks rather intelligent and can deform itself according to the space it voyages in, just like Terminator does from the science-fiction film,” explained Tsinghua University scientist Jing Liu.  “These unusual behaviors perfectly resemble the living organisms in nature.”

Liu’s team postulated that the gallium drop experiment proves it could have immediate applications as a self-powered pump to move liquid through a cooling device in the absence of an external power source. Their ongoing research is part of a long-term project to eventually create intelligent robots that are non-rigid and can be altered and manipulated into a variety of shapes.

Converting chemical energy into mechanical energy is one step closer to creating a shape-shifting liquid robot of the future, but for now Elon Musk and Gary Marcus can be rest assured it’s just a harmless scientific experiment (or is it?).

The Robotic Tailor

In the spirit of the robotic zipper I followed fashion week to London last week.  Now having just returned from the infamous Savile Road, I can fully appreciate the home of the bespoke suit. In the words of the 3D printing headphone company, NORMAL, “One Size Fits No One.”  To date, the biggest obstacle for personalized printed clothing has been costs and skills in bringing this technology to the hands of designers.

Make-on-Home-page-B (1)

At the new Apparel Lab of the Pratt Institute Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, an incubator launched by the school to support emerging designers, the paradigm for ‘cut & sew’ manufacturing has finally entered the 21st Century.  Using two computerized robot sewing machines Kelly Puertas, the Knitwear Director of the incubator, presents the most ground breaking innovation in fashion since the modern loom of 1838.  Ms. Puertas is bringing mass automation to the next generation of designers to educate them of the impressive power of robotic workers, such as the SSR112 and the MACH2X who can knit a custom merino wool sweater in a matter of minutes.

The SSR112 is a computerized flat knitting machine and looks like a dining-table-sized ink-jet printer. Glass panels along its sides allow you to see how it operates: Following cues from Puertas’s input to the SDS-ONE APEX3 design software, a carriage in the knitting machine zips back and forth unspooling a length of yarn to two beds of needles arranged in a V shape, which hook and tuck the fabric to create stitches. Repeat over and over again at a speed of up to 3.9 feet per second, and in just 10 minutes you’ve almost completed one of BF+DA’s peak-patterned, 100 percent Merino wool neck warmers. All that remains is to connect the fabric at the ends to close the loop.

“Flat knitting machines knit shapes—back, front, sleeves, for example—that then get linked together to complete the garment,” says Puertas. In other words, though the SSR112 can make stitches, it cannot create something with depth and shape, like a sweater.

That’s where the MACH2X, a whole-garment knitting machine, comes in. Using four needle beds, it is able to produce complete garments that require no extra linking.

“The whole-garment, or seamless, process knits the whole garment at once, moving from the bottom up, so the back and front are attached together like a tube,” Puertas explains. “The arms are two tubes on either side. When it gets to the shoulders and neck, the knitting machine attaches them together and then creates the neckline, so it comes off of the machine complete. It’s a bit like a 3-D printer.”

The SSR112 and the MACH2X are manufactured by the Japanese company Shima Seiki, which introduced its first computerized flat knitting machine in 1978 and WholeGarment knitting machine in 1995. Both milestones were also achieved shortly after by Stoll, a German manufacturer and Shima Seiki’s largest competitor.

Today, computerized knitting machines are employed at all levels of garment production where the capital is available and applications appropriate. Though their prices may seem dear—BF+DA’s SSR112 and MACH2X cost about $250,000 together—the machines are able to handle all kinds of work, sans that which requires heavier gauges of yarn. So while BF+DA’s mission to serve emerging designers means its facilities are reserved for small-scale production runs, the technology it’s using is quite often in the hands of mass manufacturers. Think of it as the 3D Maker studio for new designers.

As an example of the next generation of fashion production, Nike has continued to aggressively hire professionals with experience in computerized knitting design software following the 2012 release of Flyknit, the company’s first shoe made almost entirely on machines like the SSR112 and MACH2X. “Nike’s got the Stoll machines, the Shimas, they have a whole innovation center around knit,” Johnson explains. “It’s a big part of their innovation technology.”

knitting robot


And innovation, may be what pushes computerized knitting machines into the spotlight. Beyond their labor-saving advantages, the degree of precision and customization that the technology offers may transform the future of clothing retail. “If you start to combine this with technologies like body scanning,” Johnson says, “we could take our pattern, put it onto your avatar, adjust the program so it’s a perfect fit and print it out.”

Puertas mentions that Shima Seiki’s Japanese headquarters already houses a body scanner reserved for VIP guests. And just last summer, Body Labs, a company that commercializes body-scanning technology, released a beta version of its software that allows users to create 3-D models of themselves with the Microsoft Kinect motion-sensing device.

Johnson says that within 10 years we’ll begin seeing retailers incorporate body scanners and avatars into the shopping experience. These technologies will be able to assist customers to find their exact sizes and also to order customized garments. “Wouldn’t you just love the perfect fit? How many pairs of jeans do you try on before you find something you like?” Johnson asks, hinting that the SSR112 and MACH2X may soon become paragons for both the shopaholic and the fair labor advocate

These impressive technologies are missing one thing, as no one wants to say they are wearing SSR112 on their butt – Brand.

Fashion Week: Zipperbot Hits The Runway

Removing myself from city life last week, I couldn’t help notice inefficiencies that have yet to be solved by technology.  For example, United Airlines’ inability to deliver my luggage to my destination on time. Watching my wife encounter the same frustration, I had an epiphany,  women are unbelievably more patient than men with life’s hiccups.

Women encounter the biggest inefficiently almost on a daily basis, the zippers on the back of their dresses.  Contorted and frustrated, my wife constantly begs me to lend a helping hand.  Adam Whiton of MIT must have come to a similar conclusion as part of his aptly-named Sartorial Robotics Thesis, “Zipperbot.”

In an email to Mashable, Whiton says, “fashion is a form of play with our identities and it will be important for robots/machines to have an understanding of that.”


Whiton, who just received his Ph.D from MIT’s Personal Robots group, is so convinced in the future of sartorial robotics that he founded a company (Betazip LLC) dedicated to the area. Its first product is, naturally, Zipperbot.

The robot, by the way, does far more than just zip up your jacket. It uses optical sensors to properly mesh the zipper teeth and motion sensors to zip and unzip at the right time. In one test, Whiton put Zipperbot in a form-fitting hobble skirt. When the hobble skirt-wearer began to walk, Zipperbot detected the motion and slightly unzipped to make it easier for the hobble skirt-wearer to move.

Originally working as a researcher focused on robot skin, Whiton soon switched to clothing and intelligent fabrics for wearables. Eventually, he turned to fashion.

“As robots become more and more sophisticated and work more closely with people, robots will need to understand social signaling which of course includes understanding fashion and sartorial cues,” says Whiton.

Along with the Zipperbot, Whiton also built a computer vision system that analyzes a person’s preferred color palettes based on the clothes they’re wearing. It can then suggest new patterns and colors based on that palette analysis.  This offers an entirely new category of wearable technology and sensors to provide smart clothes and accessories.

For Whiton, fashion is more than just about looking good, it may be the key to harmonious robot-human interaction. “[Robots] should understand simple differences like formal business attire versus casual in order to give context to an interaction or something more complex like the act of loosening a tie, which might indicate relaxation.”

Zipperbot 2

It’ll be a while before a robot quotes Billy Crystal’s charac you Fernando, to say  “you look marvelous.”  In the meantime, Whiton thinks Zipperbot could start a trend in “assistive clothing” and help people with disabilities dress themselves and be useful in situations where touching any part of clothing (for example, chemical and biohazard suits) could be detrimental to one’s health.

Whiton proves once again that creativity is THE killer app, now if he can just help those drones in Denver find my lost suitcase…