Monday, March 28, 2011

Japan asks: Where are our robots?

Inside a nondescript warehouse south of Mannheim, Germany, a dozen robots, ranging in size from a low-slung inspection bot no bigger than a toy wagon to a 22-ton Caterpillar excavator, stand ready to respond to a nuclear emergency. With their electronics hardened to withstand radiation, the versatile machines can handle fuel rods as well as monitor doses that would kill a human engineer.
A similar robotic quick-response squad is housed near the Chinon nuclear power plant in France. But in Japan, where the Fu­kushima Daiichi nuclear crisis drags into its third week, the question is: Where are the robots?
The answer is disquieting, say Japan’s top roboticists. Instead of building robots that go where humans never could, this country renowned for its robotics expertise invested in machines that do things that humans can already do — like talk, dance, play the violin and preside over weddings.
“The government believed this accident wouldn’t happen,” said Hirose Shigeo, a robotics researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “Most of the robot experts are concentrating on humanoid [robots] and home use.”
“We should have focused on response and disaster-mitigation robots,” said Satoshi Tadokoro, who builds search-and-rescue robots at Tohoku University in Sendai. “The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry did not do that. The [power] companies did not do that. It is very strange and inappropriate.”
After a 1999 accident at a nuclear fuel processing facility in Tokai in which two workers died from radiation exposure, the Japanese government and the company operating the facility began developing radiation-resistant robots. But after a year, the trade ministry halted the project, said Shigeo and Tadokoro.
Another Japanese agency, the Nuclear Safety Technology Center, constructed two robots equipped with cameras and hazardous-materials monitors. One, called Monirobo, was dispatched to Fukushima last week, according to Japanese news reports. But representatives of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Daiichi facility, aren’t saying how, or even whether, the robot is being used on-site.
The need for robots that can withstand high radiation was made even more evident over the weekend after two workers at Daiichi were hospitalized after wading in radioactive water. Robots sent to the site early in the crisis could have guided key decisions by providing vital data on damage to the facility’s reactors and adjacent pools of used uranium fuel.
Instead, official statements from Tepco convey uncertainty about the extent of damage. And the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly pushed for better information.
Shigeo said a robot developed in his lab, called Helios IX, could fill the reconnaissance niche. The machine can climb stairs, open doors, and monitor temperature and radiation. If its cameras aimed at the spent fuel pools, they could show whether water cannons operated by ground crews were refilling the pools or simply splashing streams onto the floor.
After the crisis began more than two weeks ago, Shigeo upgraded the radio communications on Helios IX so it can be guided from longer distances and through the heavy concrete of the Daiichi plant. So far, though, no one has requested his help — or that of his robot.
Another reconnaissance robot, built by Tadokoro and named Quince, may be called into action. The Tokyo Fire Department, which has sent vehicles and workers to Daiichi, is evaluating how the low-slung, tank-tracked machine could assist, Tadokoro said.
American robots are being enlisted as well. A Massachusetts company, iRobot, known for its Roomba vacuum cleaners, sent four of its heavier-duty robots to Fukushima, said Joseph W. Dyer, the company’s chief operating officer. Citing the sensitivity of the situation, Dyer declined to discuss which operations the robots might be involved in or whether the Japanese government had requested the shipment.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy said the agency was evaluating its robotic inventory at the request of the Japanese government. The department has built several remotely operated robots to clean up radioactive waste from former nuclear-fuel processing facilities at its Hanford Site in Washington state and Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Despite these investments, France (which derives about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power), and Germany (25 percent) are the only countries with at-the-ready robots designed for nuclear disasters. The nuclear power industry in each country has funded the operations for decades.
In the United States, the government and the nuclear industry have instead been reactive, building a handful of robots for specific nuclear tasks — but only after accidents.
Four years after the 1979 Three Mile Island crisis in Pennsylvania, the team tasked with cleaning up the mess tapped a robotics pioneer at Carnegie Mellon University, William L. “Red” Whittaker. Whittaker’s lab quickly built two robots that provided the first views of the damaged reactor. One of the machines ultimately spent four years chewing on the building’s irradiated concrete walls, sucking up radioactive water and scooping up partially melted uranium fuel.
After that success, Whittaker co-founded a company called RedZone Robotics, which in 1998 built a robot for the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine. But a few years later the company abandoned the market, said chief executive Eric C. Close. “It’s very hard to have a business model that waits for nuclear disaster,” he said. RedZone instead builds snake-like robots that navigate and maintain sewage pipes.
Tadokoro said that after Japan’s 1999 nuclear accident, regulatory officials and the country’s power companies discussed developing a robot response squad like those in Europe. It never happened.
“A decision was made not to invest,” Tadokoro said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Has religion influenced the cultural acceptance of robots?

From Wired's blog : The Japanese are more accepting of robots because they don't suffer from the Judeo-Christian guilt or fear associated with making idols, according to Jean-Claude Heudin, a researcher at the University of Paris.
He explained to that because of Exodus 20 ("You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below", i.e. no idols) many Westerners see the creation of life or something as lifelike as a robot as a transgression of some sort of moral law. For that reason we have scary iconic figures such as Dr Frankenstein's monster and Golem (of Jewish folklore, not LOTR, fame) and frequent Hollywood robot horror movies such as Terminator to pollute our attitudes towards robots.
Heudin says: "That explains a bit culturally why the first impression about this technology is one of anguish, unlike our Japanese contemporaries where robots are viewed as a companion of life or the saviour of humanity."
Fujiko Suda, the Japanese founder of Project Kobo, agreed with Heudin, talking of a culture of Japanese accepting robots as friends. When asked why a lot of robotic innovation was coming from Japan and Korea rather than Europe and the US, she responded: "I think it's that religious difference. In Japan we don't have this one god who created mankind. When you create robot it can feel too godlike. We have eight million gods. God is in everything. So if you have a human-shaped robot, it's just another thing in nature that we work with. We're not afraid of it. "
It is certainly true that Japan has the world's highest use of industrial robots and that it specialises in humanoid types. However, there are no major studies that support this hypothesis. So while it's certainly an interesting theory, it will have to remain as such until it is scrutinised more scientifically.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Innorobo : une réussite avec plus de 5000 visiteurs

Voila, Innorobo c'est fini pour cette année. Malgré mon appréhension au départ sur la réussite d'un tel projet, je dois bien reconnaître que c'est un franc succès. Plus de 5000 visiteurs ont en effet participé à l’évènement qui s'est déroulé à Lyon du 22 au 25 mars. Sur l'espace d'exposition, on pouvait rencontrer près de 80 sociétés exposantes provenant de 12 nationalités différentes et voir plus de 100 robots en démonstrations dont une trentaine étaient montrés pour la toute première fois en Europe. Personnellement, j'ai eu un faible pour le robot Jazz de la société française Gostai, même si l'équipe sur place, très compétente techniquement, manquait encore de réflexes commerciaux de base...  Côté conférence, la qualité était au rendez-vous avec un panel d'orateurs sélectionné par la sympathique équipe de Robolift. Merci à eux de m'avoir permis de présenter lors de cette conférence ma vision de l'Intelligence Artificielle basée sur les sciences de la complexité. J'ai appelé cette approche "Complex Artificial Intelligence". J'ai montré sur mes exemples favoris (automates cellulaires, Lifedrop, Ms House) que l'intelligence était une propriété émergente des systèmes complexes qui se situent à la frontière des systèmes ordonnés et des systèmes chaotiques.
Un grand merci à Bruno Bonnell pour cette initiative qui replace l'Europe et surtout la France au rang des nations qui comptent en matière de robotique. Un clin d'oeil amical à Catherine Simon qui a travaillé sans relâche depuis deux ans sur ce projet. Rendez-vous à Innorobo 2012 à Lyon du 14 au 16 mars!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Des robots français à la centrale de Fukushima ?

Alors que la situation s'est aggravé ces derniers jours à la centrale de Fukushima, on s'interroge sur le fait surprenant que la robotique, pourtant très en pointe chez nos amis japonais, est la grande absente. L'agence Reuters mardi dernier titrait "Le Japon : des robots partout sauf dans les centrales nucléaires".
Le même jour, Le Monde s'étonnait de la variété des robots japonais qui font de la cuisine, jouent du violon, etc., mais dont aucun n'est a priori capable d'intervenir dans un environnement déstructuré, chaud et radioactif (Ci-contre une image de la catastrophe de Fukushima (c) afp/tepco).
Une demande aurait d’ailleurs été émise par l’agence internationale de l’énergie atomique aux pays qui “disposeraient de robots et de véhicules sans pilote capables de fonctionner dans une zone fortement radioactive”. Les équipes françaises d'EDF ont répondu à cet appel et se disent prêts à envoyer hommes, robots et matériels. Mercredi, sur France Info, Dominique Minière, directeur de la production nucléaire d’EDF, précisait “On peut leur apporter des robots pour aller contrôler la radioactivité sur le site, faire des prélèvements”. A suivre.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Conférence sur l'IA à Robolift - Innorobo (Innovation Robotic Summit)

Passionnés de robots, soyez nombreux à venir à Innorobo qui se déroulera à Lyon la semaine prochaine du 23 au 25 mars. J'aurai le plaisir de partager la session du Jeudi 24 mars à 16H00 sur le futur de la robotique sur le thème "Artificial intelligence: acquired versus programmed intelligence?" avec Pierre-Yves Oudeyer. Mon intervention sera orientée sur mon approche de l'IA par les systèmes complexes et plus particulièrement sur le projet "Ms House" basée sur une IA composée de multiples personnalités et capable de chercher de l'information en temps réel sur le web et de l'utiliser dans la discussion en langage naturel avec l'utilisateur. Le pitch de mon intervention est le suivant :
Du super-ordinateur intelligent à la singularité technologique, l'intelligence artificielle (IA) a toujours fait l'objet de prédictions fantasmatiques. Cette image est amplifiée par la littérature de science-fiction et les films à grands spectacles où l'IA est souvent une créature belliqueuse capable d’apprendre et d’évoluer par elle-même. Malgré de nombreuses avancées, la réalité dans les laboratoires est bien plus laborieuse. Nous rappellerons brièvement l'histoire tumultueuse de cette discipline, puis nous tenterons de comprendre les raisons profondes qui limitent son développement. Nous proposerons enfin une perspective qui s'appuie sur les sciences de la complexité.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Un téléphone mobile nippon en forme de poupée androïde

L'université d’Osaka et les laboratoires ATR ont présenté un téléphone cellulaire original puisque celui-ci prend la forme d’une poupée humaine asexuée. Le premier prototype, baptisé Elfoid P1, est assez simple puisqu’il ne contient qu’une puce GSM basique et donc limitée à la communication par la voix uniquement. Plus intéressant est la « coque » du téléphone recouverte d’un gel de polyuréthane qui imite la peau pour que le mobile puisse permettre « de ressentir la présence de la personne à qui vous parlez. »  Le haut-parleur est intégré dans la tête de la poupée et une lumière dans le torse pour donner son état : rouge en veille (?) et bleue si le téléphone est allumé. Dans une version future, il est prévu d’intégrer une caméra pour détecter les mouvements de tête et les reproduire à distance. Je proposerai bien d’autres accessoires à ce nouveau téléphone, comme par exemple des aiguilles pour vaudou 3G+… Ouille!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

EVA can search the web and use it in the flow of conversation

EVA (Evolutionary Virtual Agent) can now     make realtime search on the web and use the result in the flow of conversation. The image on the left shows a simple example during the Ms House experiment. The user asks "What is a pencil?" and the answer appears in less than one second: "A pencil is a writing implement or art medium usually constructed of a narrow pigment core inside a protective casing." Another example: "Who is Michelle Obama?" results in the following answer: "Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is the wife of the 44th and incumbent President of the United States, Barack Obama, and is the first African-American First Lady of the United States."
We emphasize the fact that there was no information about these subjects in the knowledge base before the questions. This result shows that the next generation of conversational agents will be able to mine information from the web or in a database without the need of programming a knowledge base.