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Roadmap for personal robotic development

We’re on the cusp of robotic assistants appearing in home and office use; not just silent machines vacuuming our floors (or in my experience with the Roomba, getting stuck under our furniture) or in industrial applications, but interacting with us for daily tasks and presenting themselves in anthropomorphic ways. This is on my mind a lot, but last week’s MIT Technology Review article “Personal Robots: Artificial Friends with Limited Benefits” kept gnawing at me. I’ve got some questions:

  • Why are the first wave of personal robotic assistants so cute and kid-friendly?
  • Is it necessary to train potential buyers with entertaining ‘bots before they will use serious applications?
  • Do cute robots trivialize the potential of these machines?
  • What have we learned from other sources about what adults might want, need, and — most importantly in the long run — actually use?
  • What does the product roadmap look like between Roomba and Rosie, and beyond?

In my previous work life as a project and product manager at Internet companies, it was important to consider not only the current product my team was building, but the competitive landscape, latest research, and how we hoped to iterate the product in the future.  The product roadmap got more speculative the further forward it stretched, and in Internet time, that could mean it was blurry a mere 12 months ahead, but I had some idea where we planned to go. Combined with research, reporting, and user testing, that roadmap would drive the requirements for the next version.

With a number of companies heading in simultaneous, differing development directions, I wonder what the roadmap looks like to people on the inside. Does Cynthia Breazeal want JIBO to become the Furby of 2016, just as irrelevant years later? Is she counting on more adult applications to come from third-party developers, or does she have a track in mind that goes beyond the lovechild of WALL-E and Siri? I look at the “Future Life with Pepper” video from Aldebaran Robotics (below, in Japanese but very easy to understand) and I find it unimaginative and silly.

Some of my irritation with how Pepper is shown could be cultural; I like kawaii things, but I don’t want an infantilized assistant with a high voice. That might say “non-threatening and friendly” to others, but it says “annoying and dumbed down” to me. I would love to have a moving robot with hands right now, if it could fetch or carry things for me while I’m steering my wheelchair or gripping crutches. Stir onions on the stove while they carmelize. Let the dog out. Pick up the ball of yarn I dropped that rolled across the room. Don’t play peek a boo with me when I’m crying, ffs. How useless!

Does the roadmap for personal robotics have to pass through Candyland? Though I find it frustrating for myself as an early adopter, I can see how it could be a viable path. It’s a non-threatening way to get robots into a family home. Children might engage with a cute bot more frequently and naturally than adults with a more serious one, and I suspect that like a digital assistant or a DVR, robots will have more perceived value when used regularly, while that value might be hard to explain to a non-user. Teaching children to comfortably interact with robots could be important to the roadmap in a Wayward Pines First Generation sort of way: they are the future, and when robotic technology has advanced so there are more home and office uses, they will be the programmers, designers, buyers, and users.

Do we have data that could point to what older users want from personal robots in the near future? I’d suggest looking at tablet/phone apps, gadget purchases, and use of digital assistants now. Mail, chat, videos, photography, weather, maps, social media, music, games, search, stock updates, fitness tracking, and news. Communication with other devices on the same network. Notifications delivered in a personalized, prioritized way. Immediate answers to relatively simple questions. Reminders and a calendar.  These are all things that are perfectly suited to a stationary, voice-controlled robot with a display screen. If I were designing a bot of that sort for my personal needs I’d add in: can take dictation and save longer notes, can read a piece of text and answer basic questions about it (“How many cups of flour do I need?” when reading a recipe), can send voice/photo/video messages to other bots of the same/similar type, can act as a receptionist for my mobile phone when I’m home, can interact with my accounts on video sites and the Chromecast/future device attached to my TV (“Play season 2 of Archer on the family room television”), and more.

I think that even at that point in the roadmap, a stationary robot with personality, like JIBO rather than the not-very-clever, screenless Amazon Echo, could be exceedingly useful for remote relationships of various types. My family is spread across the country and my friends are around the world, and just from my own life I can think of many use cases. I can also imagine such a bot as an assistant at work. In a few years, with better communication between devices and programs instead of maintaining silos of information, even this level of robot could be a daily helpmate to many people.

When we start to consider a robot with mobility and limbs, however, we need to think in 3D. The Pepper video fails greatly in that regard. The only shown use of mobility is that Pepper can move toward people and its hands are used for games or expressions. I doubt that’s all we want, but the development path between that and a fully mobile bot with useful appendages that could do housework, for example, is unclear. Our homes have different floor types, thresholds, stairs, and obstacles that must be overcome before we start to consider the fine motor control and grip needed for simple tasks. Still, I can imagine a robot not too far off that could operate on one floor of a home or office and handle small manual jobs as well as providing entertainment. At times, most of us could simply use an extra set of hands to hold, stir, open, carry, or balance something. Is that enough to justify the work necessary to make a mobile robot?  Probably not. I can see the first viable generation of mobile home robots being developed and marketed for the elderly or disabled, with uses customized to those populations as well as the functionality of the stationary bots. When might that be? 10-15 years from now?

It seems that the next step after that is currently undefined. The technological gap that remains before we reach the dream of a robot butler or housekeeper, able to do physical work in any setting, is huge. Maybe we need to give some thought to the roadmap and where we really want personal robotics to be in 20-30 years. Are charismatic androids the best robotic supplement we can imagine?  Maybe there is a fork in the path, where we separate companion bots from more utilitarian bots. Maybe the development curve of smart home/office technology will intercept the robotic curve at a point where the robot can be the control interface, but not need so many skills built in.

Along those lines, I’ve embedded a video below about the characters in the AMC series HUMANS. It’s interesting if you’re watching the series, but even if you’re not, it introduces the androids (“synthetics” or “synths”) as they’re imagined in that parallel present and the interactions that humans have with them. I think that full-service androids like synths are often seen as the endpoint of the personal robotic roadmap. Should they be?

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in Digital Devices, Our Robot Overlords

 

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Personal technology and temporary disability

Silver lining: while my broken leg heals, I’m in a good position to reflect on how personal technology can play a role in surgical recovery (or temporary/permanent disability, or quality of life for the elderly). Now that I have the energy to sit at my computer for a while, I’ll reflect on how that technology has changed in the past few years and the near-future opportunities, as well. I’m still taking narcotic painkillers now and then, so I won’t promise to be coherent.

Non-digital assistant: my dog is in full nurse mode

Non-digital assistant: my dog is in full nurse mode

Social contact

Having a smartphone with various messaging options and friends/family who use 21st century communication protocols makes such a difference. I’ll contrast my experience with that of my hospital roommate. She was in her early 60s and had a cell phone of some sort, but she only used it for voice calls. That’s better than only having the hospital landline, but still not the best solution. Why not?

  • Annoying in close quarters: I heard every detail of every conversation she had, day or night. While this sometimes provided entertainment — I got to hear her embellish the story of her surgery with each call and gossip maliciously about people she had just spoken with — it was infuriating when I was tired and in pain. The other side of that coin is that she had no privacy. With text messaging, I was able to converse silently at any time.
  • Phone tag vs message threads: One afternoon my roommate was bored and I think she called half the people in her contact list without getting an answer. She left some messages, sighed a lot, and then flipped on the TV. I had conversations underway with my husband, local friends, and distant friends from Oz to the Orkneys, and if there was a pause of minutes or hours while someone slept/worked/ate/did something else, it was no big deal. Asynchronous communication means you don’t always have to stop and start a conversation, but can pop back into a thread as time allows.
  • Presence indicator: In a related vein, when I was having a bored mopey afternoon like she had, I could see who was active online rather than fishing through my address book.

Part of the isolation of being housebound or in the hospital is that the ability to participate in the lives of others is reduced. It’s impossible to attend parties or go to events. Social media allows me to still have a presence in those activities. I won’t argue that watching a concert video my friend posted is the same as going along, but Liking and commenting on it shows I’m aware of and interested in her life; it helps refresh our connection. I can read and watch news to stay connected to the larger outside world, but social media keeps me connected to the more personal spheres.

There are options available that I didn’t use: Skype or FaceTime video chats, for example, or keeping up with other social media platforms, or trying to use Second Life on my phone. Now that I’m home, I can return to virtual world socializing. I don’t have much of an attention span for it yet, but I know I’ll appreciate being able to travel, dance, drive, and simply move through a three dimensional world.

Personal entertainment

I can clearly remember the first time I played an arcade game: Centipede, in Buffalo Children’s Hospital, early 1982. 33 years later I sprawled in my hospital bed and played far more advanced games on my phone. I also had access to a couple hundred CDs from my collection and limitless music streaming on various platforms. I could choose from thousands of streaming movies and TV shows.

My hospital provides each patient a television with a decent selection of basic cable channels. It’s quite nice, but at night when there was less demand on the WiFi network, I propped up my smartphone and streamed Orange is the New Black on Netflix. Being able to choose something for myself when I was dependent on others for my basic needs was invaluable. In a little way, it helped me remain me and feel less lost in the pain and humiliation.

Even now that I’m home, when I can’t sleep I flip open TuneIn Radio Pro and listen to a podcast or play a silly matching game until my eyelids are heavy. Those are much better options than staring at the ceiling and obsessing over the ache in my leg.

Home automation

My Internet of Things automation options are few right now: an Amazon Echo, two WeMo switches, and Nest thermostats. None of these were options for me a mere five years ago, however, so it’s interesting to consider whether they make a significant difference. For me, I think the answer is a firm, “Yes, but….” Yes, these devices make several things much easier and enable more independence, but there is so much potential just over the horizon.

While I can’t climb stairs easily, my bed is in our first floor dining room. The Echo and my Android smartphone give me the ability to turn lights on and off, adjust the temperature, and run the fan if I’m a bit overheated. The Echo recognizes the WeMo switches but not the Nests, which is annoying.  I can say, “Alexa, turn on family room,” to have her activate that WeMo switch, but the IF recipes that can pair Echo with Nest are clumsy hacks, things like “if I add any item to my Echo To Do list, set the Nest to 72 degrees.” There’s significant room for improvement.

—–

I’m lucky. My stupid body might injure easily, but it also heals like a champ. I expect to be walking again by Fall and my gadgets can go back to being toys more than tools.  For now, though, I’m glad I have more options than I did just a few years ago.

 

 

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Blending physical and holographic worlds with the MS HoloLens

I can’t help it; I’m a complete fangirl about some speculative technologies that could revolutionize the way we interact online and in the real world in the next 5-10 years. Even though Microsoft has broken my heart many times before, the promo video for the HoloLens has me bouncing in my desk chair with excitement.

 

See what I mean? TechCrunch has more information and another video.  Of course I’m skeptical for all the basic reasons: another headset with a camera, pricing and battery life concerns, realistic applications beyond design.  But it’s still awfully damn cool to realize we live at a time where things like this are possible.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2015 in Digital Devices, In the News

 

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Tech trends for 2015

Interested in what’s next or simply trying to keep up with impressive-sounding jargon? I’ve compiled a few lists of tech trends that are expected to be hot this year. I agree with some of them, for better or worse, and others are giving me food for thought as I consider the human implications. Click the links for more details.

Webbmedia Group (the presentation below is worth watching at full-screen, but a summary list of the key points from by Amy Webb in the Harvard Business Review  includes deep learning, smart virtual personal assistants, “It’s like Uber for ____”, oversight for algorithms, data privacy, and block chain technology):

 

10 Strategic Technology Trends from Gartner:

  1. Computing everywhere
  2. The Internet of Things (IoT)
  3. 3D printing
  4. Advanced, pervasive, invisible analytics
  5. Context-rich systems
  6. Smart machines
  7. Cloud/client architecture
  8. Software-defined infrastructure and applications
  9. Web-scale IT
  10. Risk-based security and self-protection

Tech Trends for 2015 from frog design:

  • Move over “step counters”
  • Ambient intelligence knows what’s up
  • Nano particles diagnose from the inside out
  • The emergence of the casual programmer
  • Eat your technologies
  • The Internet of food goes online
  • Mobilizing the next 4 billion
  • Personal darknets in the spotlight
  • 4D printing assembles itself
  • Digital currency replaces legal tender
  • The rise of cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Textiles get techy
  • Adaptive education personalizes learning
  • Achievement unlocked: you’re hired!
  • Micro-farming networks go mainstream

 The Tech That Will Dominate 2015, from Tim Bajarin at PC Magazine:

  • Apple enhances product resolution and invades enterprise market
  • Increased vigilance against security breaches
  • Tablets as personal TVs
  • Streaming media everywhere
  • Better battery life
  • New MacBook Air
  • Domestic robots
  • Low-end tablets replacing other gadgets
  • Apple Watch more successful that expected
  • Easier ways to design/create 3D products
 
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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Digital Devices, In the News, Research

 

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My wishlist of wearables yet to be invented

The world doesn’t need more expensive pedometers. I have a growing list of wearables I wish existed, though:

The Face Whisperer

Perfect for people with face blindness, short attention spans, or stressed memory, this device would use discrete audio and video inputs to recognize people nearby. With a subtle gesture, I could trigger the device to whisper the person’s name into my ear (or onto a Heads Up Display if a Google Glass-like product ever went mainstream). Perhaps another gesture could supply additional information, like the last time that person was encountered, or her employer, or whatever would be relevant to the user. Another version of the software might analyze facial expressions and whisper emotional cues to someone on the autistic spectrum. Cheaper and less annoying, I would think, than a sycophantic assistant.

devwearsprada
The Automatic Pain Diary

Anyone with chronic pain is familiar with questions about frequency and type of pain experienced. Recording that is easier said than done. First there’s the problem that one way of coping with frequent pain is to push it out of our conscious minds. Also, having frequent pain means that it occurs at inconvenient times: in the middle of work, while driving, in bed, while grocery shopping, etc. Doctors who want pain diaries have probably never tried to keep one themselves. This wearable diary could be a wristband that the user presses to activate, then presses a number of times corresponding to pain level. Perhaps a second button could record a short audio clip, giving a description, location, and/or possible trigger for the pain. Have that synch into a database that can be printed or transmitted electronically. Ta-da!  Far more accurate and less stress for the patient.

Gait Trainer

This one is awfully personal, but I can see it being useful for a wider range of people (Parkinson’s Disease patients, training athletes, people in accident rehab). Wearable sensors on ankles or attached to footwear would track various items about a person’s gait: length and speed of stride, consistency, alignment, etc. This could be synced and compared to a range considered “acceptable”, with a report on what variations occurred and whether the trend is improving.  Even better, if the measured gait is outside the desired range an alert would be delivered to a smartphone or wrist wearable. I’m currently learning to walk correctly and it’s awfully difficult: I can’t see myself walk and once I pay conscious attention to my gait, it changes.

Biofeedback Anywhere

Biofeedback training can help with stress, PTSD, headaches, and more. It’s a natural for gamification; in fact, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry has a game called Mindball, which is essentially competitive relaxation. The biofeedback devices I find online right now are pretty lame. Give me discrete wearables that tie into an app with various programs. For example, let me float a happy bunny around a beautiful landscape in a bubble, guided by calmed brainwaves, lower pulse, and deep slow respiration. Give me a Bob Ross-style landscape that paints itself slowly over a 10-20 minute biofeedback session. Slowly erase the scene or bring the bubble down to earth if my zen is harshed. It’s not quite guided meditation but it could be a way to integrate and calm mind and body for a little break.

Anybody out there who can make these happen? Fabulous. Send me some when you’re done!

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Health - Mental & Physical, Side Topics

 

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Betty Rubble in a Jetsons world

What is the lived experience of increasing home automation?  I’ve been thinking about this since reading the Popular Mechanics article “I Automated My Apartment — And It Kind Of Creeped Me Out” and “The Plug-and-Play Luxury Home” from The Wall Street Journal. Is it a relaxing techno-utopia where needs are anticipated, security is improved, and tedious tasks are automated?  Is it a nightmare of intrusive technology gone wrong or leaving us weak and helpless?  As with most things, I suspect reality is somewhere in between.

jetsons

I tend naturally toward naive optimism rather than cynicism in this arena, perhaps the result of childhood vacations gawking at the “future” scene in the Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World. I want automation to simplify my life and I believe it can. Yet when I think about some of the devices already in my home, the results are mixed.

For example, the DVR. I was an early TiVo adopter and I’ve had a digital video recorder for about 14 years. Life changing! Far more than VCRs, DVRs allowed us to snip the restraints of network program schedules. We could watch programs that were slated to compete against each other, rather than choosing one or the other.  The DVR I have now allows 4 non-HD programs to be recorded simultaneously, which we use to full capacity on Sunday nights even with some creative prioritization. It is a treasure in an era of split seasons and staggered start dates, like having a media butler who obediently records “Robot Chicken” though the previous episode was eighteen months before. But, it’s not all wine and roses. The DVR uses metadata about each program provided by the network, and if the data is flawed or incomplete, the DVR appears unreliable.  Because of lousy metadata, my DVR kept recording Masterpiece Theatre even after the last episode of Sherlock aired, until I remembered to delete it from the schedule. Forget recording anything that might be delayed; the DVR isn’t smart enough to recognize that a football game has finally ended and “The Amazing Race” has begun.  As a technology, DVRs have played a role in fragmenting popular culture (along with cable television, the Internet, satellite radio, and mobile devices). Now we try to watch the most surprising shows or spend the next day dodging spoilers, but I’m old enough to remember when everyone could talk about the previous night’s big shows. Of course we all watched Magnum, PI on its debut night, not because of shocking spoilers but because that was the only time to see it until summer reruns (remember those?).

There are two Nest thermostats in my house and I’ve really enjoyed them in the past few months.  Enjoyed thermostats?  Yep. We had programmable thermostats before that and had our heating and cooling on a schedule, but life is rarely so predictable.  Our energy bills made my stomach hurt. The Nest takes some active attention and that awareness has an interesting result: there is an element of game-playing that encourages the user to adjust the Nest to save energy. I’m the Nest controller in my household and more than once, I’ve turned the temperature down an extra degree to see the green leaf “saving energy” symbol appear.

Motion-sensitive lights seem to be gaining popularity for home use and many of us have experienced them in offices or public restrooms. How convenient: saving energy without stubbing your toe in the dark. Maybe they work nicely for many people, but as someone who works quietly at a computer much of the time, these result in the Light-Activating Flail, flopping my arms around like an inflated man or Dee when the lights turn off and leave me working in pitch black office.  It made me frustrated and ill at ease, anticipating the next moment I would be left in the dark.  I’d rather not have the same experience when trying to relax in a hot bath. I’m sure motion-activated lights are a good solution for some, perhaps for hallways, laundry rooms, or other places where we don’t spend a lot of time. We have one light on a timer, but that requires regular intervention too: manual resets as the seasons change.

I also think about our reliance on electricity for all of these things and how we behave when we don’t have it. Backup batteries will keep a biometric entry switch working for a while, as long as they have a charge, but I feel more comfortable with analog options for core functions. The power grid in the US is unreliable and where I live — amid 100 year old trees, high winds, and above-ground power lines — losing electricity is common in any season. I think I’d rather have backup power supplies for my appliances than have them communicate to each other (why the hell would I want my refrigerator to send a recipe to my oven, as mentioned in this article? Skip that effort and move straight to the replicator.) Having a high-tech home means keeping the low-tech stuff around or being helpless, not just in event of emergency but in the event of temporary inconvenience. Most days I watch movies on a big TV, connect to the Internet with numerous devices, and fall asleep to the glow of my Kindle, but I’m still comfortable lighting an oil lamp and pulling an old favorite book off the shelf. For me, living a Jetsons life feels more secure if I keep some Flintstones skills.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in Side Topics

 

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Nod ring wearable

I’ve been watching waves of wearables crash across my screen for the past year or so and I haven’t been very excited. Fitness trackers aren’t all that useful for the mobility-impaired, since they’re best at working like enhanced pedometers. If I wanted to wear something around my wrist, I’d wear a watch now — it would be a lot more convenient than pulling out my phone and pressing a button to see the time — but I find them uncomfortable. So what does that leave? I’d be happy with a stretchy wide band that would go around my forearm, I might consider a necklace pendant, I’m open to glasses (especially things than can be added to glasses I already wear), and now, I like the idea of rings.

Techcrunch has a nice writeup on this product, the Nod gesture controller, which was available for pre-order as of yesterday. Some of the hand movements in the video look stilted and awkward, but I was hooked with a thumb movement across the ring that seemed intuitive.

That’s where I think the honey is: gesture controls that feel so natural, they’re what we expect without realizing we expect it. Think of pinching and opening your fingers to zoom on a tablet. It feels natural because that’s how we would stretch physical objects on our fingertips. Swiping is like turning a physical page. Hand wearables feel right to me because they make natural gestures a possibility. The best interfaces don’t require a lot of training or thought, like the Marvel holotables… usually.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2014 in In the News

 

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