Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Societal Implications of Advanced Manufacturing

What distinguishes humans from other living creatures is their ability to (1) grow food for providing nourishment, (2) alter the surrounding environment (e.g., construct buildings, bridges, roads etc.) to facilitate modern living, and (3) manufacture artifacts to improve the quality of life. 

The importance of being self-reliant on food production is well understood by every nation. For example, the US produces a large portion of food items consumed by its population. Construction by its very nature takes place in the communities that are going to benefit from it. Manufacturing on the other hand has seen large geographical shifts due to economic considerations. This has major societal implications.   

As countries around the world experience high unemployment rates and large trade deficits, there appears to be a vibrant debate about the role of manufacturing in the society. Developed nations are primarily interested in high value manufacturing that creates high paying jobs and export opportunities for its manufacturers. This type of manufacturing is often called Advanced Manufacturing. A number of enabling technologies are having a profound effect on the manufacturing sector. This post explores the value of Advanced Manufacturing in the societal context.

I have categorized advanced manufacturing into four main areas and tried to list challenges, enabling technologies, goals,  and societal implications for them. 

1. Smart Manufacturing
  • Challenges: Manufacturing consumes significant resources and negatively impacts the environment. To compete favorably, companies need to offer high quality products of increasing complexity at a faster pace with lower prices.  
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing These Challenges: Internet of Things, Low Cost Sensors, Ubiquitous Computing, Machine Learning, and Cloud Computing
  • Goal: Improve manufacturing efficiency and productivity
  • Societal Implications:  Reduce environmental impact of manufacturing, create high paying jobs in manufacturing, and reduce cost 
2. Automation
  • Challenge: Manufacturing involves significant manual labor and hence not competitive in high wage regions  
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: Digital Models, Virtual Prototyping Software, Human-Friendly Robots, Human Robot Collaboration, and Automated Material Handling Systems  
  • Goal: Reduce human labor in manufacturing 
  • Societal Implications: Make domestic production viable, increase exports, and enhance national security by reducing reliance on imported goods
3. Advanced Materials 
  • Challenge: Existing materials limit the design options
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: Advances in Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, and Composites  
  • Goal: Develop new materials to overcome functional limitations of existing materials
  • Societal Implications: Enable invention and creation of new products    
4. Process Innovations
  • Challenge: Existing processes impose constraints on what can be made
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: 3D Printing, Additive Manufacturing, In-Mold Assembly, Microfabrication, and Nanofabrication
  • Goal: Develop new processes to overcome limitations of existing processes
  • Societal Implications: Democratize manufacturing, empower innovators, reduce barriers to create new businesses based on new products  
I would like to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What are the Implications of the Rise of Chinese Industrial Robotics Industry?

A large fraction of the world’s manufacturing takes place in China. Historically, the manufacturing moved to China because of low wages and lenient environmental regulations. However, things are beginning to change in China. Wages are increasingly rising. Due to the one-child policy, age demographics are rapidly shifting. The ratio of the available labor force to the total population is expected to decrease. The percentage of people who are above 60 is expected to increase from 15 percent to 25 percent over the next fifteen years. These factors are expected to create a shortage of labor in the future.      

China has emerged as a dominant player in the low-cost manufacturing sector. China would like to become a significant player in the advanced manufacturing sector to maintain growth and offer high-value products. Advanced manufacturing requires precision, consistency, and high quality. Automation and robotics are considered an important ingredient to become a serious player in the advanced manufacturing arena.

China is aggressively pushing deployment of robots as a solution to the anticipated shortage of labor and its desire to move into the high-value added advanced manufacturing sector. China deployed almost 38,000 new industrial robots in 2013. Robot deployment in China has been growing at nearly 30 percent per year over the last few years. In 2013, approximately 168,000 industrial robots (excluding electronic packaging robots) were sold worldwide.  China bought more than 20 percent of the industrial robots sold worldwide. Clearly, China has emerged as a serious market for selling industrial robots.

Korea is currently the world leader in terms of the number robots deployed per worker basis.  It uses 396 robots per 10,000 workers. China currently only uses 23 robots per 10,000 workers. The same figures for Japan and Germany are 332 and 273.  China has a lot of catching up to do. There is no reason to believe that robot numbers in China will not approach 200 per 10,000 workers over the next few years. This should generate demand of approximately 400,000 robots per year in China alone. This is clearly great news for the industrial robotics companies.

China has been developing its own industrial robots. China’s domestic manufacturers sold nearly 10,000 robots in 2013. I believe that the Chinese manufacturers will ultimately utilize a large number of domestically produced robots. Hence, it is likely that Chinese domestic industrial robotics industry would have lion’s share of 400,000 robots sold annually in China. If they achieve even 75 percent of the market share in China, they will be bigger than US, European, Japanese, and Korean industrial robotics companies combined together.

Some people disagree with this assessment and use the following argument to defend their position. Even though a large volume of manufacturing takes place in China, the equipment used in the manufacturing is produced in other countries and imported to China.  Representative examples include optical fiber manufacturing equipment, IC manufacturing equipment, and CNC machines.

Some people cite China’s inability to create a strong domestic manufacturing equipment industry as a reason for why China is unlikely to emerge as a significant player in the industrial robotics industry. In my opinion, this comparison is flawed.

There are fundamental differences between industrial robots and other manufacturing equipment such as CNC machines. When a part is produced on a CNC machine, it carries the signature of the machine on which it was made. The accuracy and precision of the machine get reflected in the quality of the part produced. By examining the part, one can make inferences about the quality of the machine on which the part is made.  Hence, it often makes sense to buy high quality machines to add new capability and gain competitive advantage. In most situations, the robot just needs to be able to move the part from one place to another. Once the part leaves the robot’s hand, there is no residual impression of the robot hand on the part. You cannot examine the part and figure out which robot moved it. Hence, you just need to get a robot that will get the job done. There is no point in paying for a higher performance. I believe that there are many tasks where high performance is not needed and hence one can get away with simple robots. I don’t see any reason why Chinese manufacturers will not be able to create useful robots to serve market needs in simple pick-and-place tasks.                      

If Chinese robot manufacturers have a sufficient large volume, they should be able to drive the cost of domestically produced robots significantly. If an Indian automotive company can sell a car for less than $3,000 (e.g., Tata Nano), Chinese manufacturers should certainly be able to sell a robot for less than $5,000. Doing this will require significant support from the Chinese government, but there is no fundamental reason why this cannot be done.

Here are some interesting questions related to the rise of Chinese industrial robot industry:

  • If the Chinese were to be successful in producing lost-cost robots, would they export them to the rest of the world? How will it impact the market share of the other leading industrial robotics companies? 
  • If the rest of the world had access to really cheap robots, would Chinese manufacturers have any inherent advantage? Would the rise of Chinese robotics industry deliver low-cost robots to help the rest of the world successfully compete with Chinese manufacturers?      
  • Many business leaders in the developed world believe that the cost advantages held by Chinese manufacturers can be neutralized by using automation and robots. This is with the assumption that everyone will have to pay the same price for their robots. What if the Chinese robot manufacturers simply decide not to export their robots? In this case, the Chinese will have access to $5,000 robots, the rest of the world will need to pay at least $25,000 (based on current pricing) to get their robots. The world won’t be flat in this case.                    
  • If Chinese manufacturers mainly focus on the advanced manufacturing, who would be the world’s manufacturer for low-cost mundane parts?      
Unfortunately, I don’t know the answers to the above questions. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where Can We Use Biologically Inspired Robots?

Roboticists watch creatures in the natural world with a great deal of envy. The nature has endowed its creatures with a mesmerizing array of locomotion and manipulation abilities. Here is a representative list of remarkable capabilities on display every day in the natural world: a cheetah sprinting through an uneven terrain with tall grass, a falcon diving a great distance to catch a prey, an ant carrying a leaf that weighs five times its body weight, a monkey jumping from one tree to another while carrying a baby, and a lizard running on the water.
Robot designers try to take inspiration from the nature and try to create robots that attempt to match impressive locomotion and manipulation abilities found in the nature. Examples include robots that use legs to negotiate a rugged terrain, robots that fly by flapping their wings, robots that swim by undulating their bodies, and robots that crawl by extending and contracting their bodies.

Obviously designing and building biologically inspired robots is a lot of fun.  They offer a great excuse for grown men and women to build their own toys and play with them (and get paid while doing it!).  They can also serve as useful tools to discuss and teach science and mathematics. Learning about the conservation of momentum is much more captivating when watching YouTube videos of gazelles making sharp turns to escape hungry cheetahs. Biologically inspired robots have also helped many movies mint millions of dollars at the box office. 

Often people ask me what are the real (translation: non-fun) applications for biologically inspired robots. This post attempts to answer this question.    

The majority of biologically inspired robotics research is focused on creating robots that can go where traditional robots cannot go. These robots are expected to enable new capabilities in search, rescue, recovery, surveillance, reconnaissance, inspection, and exploration applications. Hopefully, these robots will help us in saving lives, enhancing safety and security, and learning about remote places in not so distant future. Taking inspiration from the nature is also helping us in creating robots that are much more energy efficient and robust.

Biological inspiration is also helping in the design of the next generation prostheses. Hopefully, these devices will be neurally-connected and feel much more natural than a conventional prosthesis.    

Where do we go from here? How can we expand the markets for the biologically inspired robots from the traditional applications described above? In this post, I want to exclusively focus on non-defense related applications. Here is a list of offbeat applications for biologically inspired robots.

  • Tiny Swimmers Inspired by Bacteria:  Submicron swimming robots inspired from bacteria can have many potential applications in medical diagnostic and therapeutic applications.    

  • Pets/Companions: Robot pets might be a good option for people who are unable to take care of the real pets or people who are allergic to them.  For example, robot pets might provide companionship for elderly individuals who want to live alone. They might also be useful as guide-dogs for people with visual impairments.  

  • Actors in Biology Experiments: Understanding how animals behave with each other requires an ability to perform controlled experiments.  Controlling the animal behavior during experiments is very hard. Having realistic robots that can fool animals will help in conducting experiments with a higher degree of control. For example, robots can be made to look and sound like birds to help us understand the mating habits and rituals of birds.

  • Animal Surrogates for Treating Phobias: Many people suffer from acute phobias involving animals. One way to treat the phobia is by exposing people with phobia to real animals in a controlled way. Accomplishing this is very challenging. Robots that can serve as animal surrogates can help in making further advances this area. 

  • Bouncers for Preventing Bird Trespassing: Birds can significantly reduce yields on farms by eating seeds and damaging plants. Birds can also pose threats to airplanes as they take off and land on airports. Farmers and airport administrators can use robots that look like large predatory birds and hence scare smaller birds.   

  • Avatars for Humans: I am sure that there have been cases when you wished that you had a clone who can make an appearance on your behalf. Robotic avatar might be a way to represent yourself without getting tangled in the ethical dilemma associated with human cloning. A chef might want to have multiple robotic avatars to serve a large number of customers without compromising his/her signature style. Advances in self-driving cars will enable your robotic avatar to go where you are needed without you needing to leave the comfort of your home. You can basically deliver your expertise via your robotic avatar. 

  • Farmhands: Robot swarms can help in picking ripe fruits and berries with minimal damage to the tree/plant.  They can also inspect difficult to reach portions of plants and crops for disease and infection.   

  • Training Partners for Athletes: Athletes require intensive training. Finding good training partners for elite athletes is very hard. Hopefully, robots can play this role.    
Many advances will be needed in robotics related areas before any of the above mentioned applications becomes a reality, but it is not too early to start thinking about them.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on new markets and applications for biologically inspired robots.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Would you like to achieve immortality by living as a robot?

Humans have always been fascinated with the notion of immortality. Many ancient mythologies have included memorable characters who went to incredible lengths to achieve immortality. Technological advances are putting a new spin on the concept of immortality.  The concept of digital immortality has been around for many years. Recently, a few people at MIT created a company around this concept.  

The premise behind digital immortality is relatively simple. Every day you create a large amount of digital footprints (unless you live off-the-grid in some remote jungle). Your digital footprints can be mined to learn how you “think and act”. Here are some examples of what the cyberspace knows about you:

  • Your likes and dislikes. Your Facebook and Twitter account can be mined to learn this. Your on-line (and credit card) purchases can also be used to learn what you like.
  • What you are likely to know. Based on books, forums, newsfeed, and blogs that you read, the cyberspace can build a model of what you know. Your participation in MOOCs can also be helpful in collecting this information.
  • Your value system. Your writings including tweets, blog posts, emails, comments, and product reviews can be analyzed to figure out what you value and your opinions. 
  • Who do you know and how you interact with them. Your professional and personal social network can be mined to figure this out.
  • Where have you been. Your car, your cell phone service provider, airlines, and hotels know where you have been.
If you are willing to cooperate, all of this information can be mined to create a virtual avatar of you. This virtual avatar can be used to make predictions about what you like and dislike. This avatar can also tweet using your style and post comments on Facebook and blog posts. It can even offer advice to your friends and family over the email/chat. For example, if your friend is going to Tokyo, your digital avatar can give him advice on where to find good vegetarian food (assuming that you know where to get good vegetarian food in Tokyo). If the digital avatar technology becomes really good, your avatar can live in the cyberspace when your body is unable to nourish your brain.

I am not yet sure what will be the right business model behind offering digital immortality. Advertisers would not care about the “opinions” and “eye balls” of deceased people, so the companies offering digital immortality are unlikely to make money from advertisers. Perhaps you will need to set a trust fund to pay for your digital immortality. Perhaps companies will charge you a large sum of money upfront while you are still alive. I am not sure what will happen if the company hosting your digital avatar ceases to exist. If we go down this path, we will also need to develop technology to create immortal companies!

If a good digital avatar can be created for a deceased person, then it should be possible to give a body to that digital avatar by putting it in a robot. Advances in humanoids should soon be able create robots that have locomotion capabilities of humans. Your body can be scanned and the robot can be made to look like you. Perhaps 3D digital model of you can be “airbrushed” to give you features that the mother nature forgot to give you.  I believe that technologically speaking, it should be possible to offer you an opportunity to live as a robot in less than fifty years.

I am not sure if living as a robot is a good idea for most us. Here are my concerns:
  • A robot consumes significant amount of energy and it will need to be repaired every once in a while. So it will take real resources to offer robotic immortality to deceased people. More than sixty million people die every year, so if this idea were to become popular, lots of resources will be tied up in serving robotic avatars of deceased people. I am not sure what the society will get in return.   
  • What happens if your trust fund that is paying for your robotic avatar does not do well in the next recession? Will the robotic avatar of you need to be “put to rest” in that case? Clearly, you won’t be immortal after a bad recession!
  • What if a hacker corrupts the algorithm driving your digital brain and you start acting in an erratic manner that makes your robotic avatar look like a lunatic? Can you become “digitally insane”?
  • What happens to your internal value system over time as the society evolves and its value system changes? Will your archaic value system make you look like an out-of-touch idiot in hundred years? Please keep in mind that even the digital models will “age” with time.
I think immortality is a mirage. We should simply embrace the fact that nothing is immortal (even the sun is supposed to die in few billion years from now) and instead focus on living our lives to the fullest extent while we are alive. We should all be remembered by our deeds. If the posterity sees a real value in creating a robotic avatar of a deceased person, they will do so and it will remain “alive” as long as it offers a useful value to the society.      
Technologically speaking, it will be possible to live as a robot in fifty years from now. However, it will only be worth living as a robot if the society gains something positive from our robotic avatars.    

Monday, December 30, 2013

Can Robots Play a Role in Improving Lives of Autistic Individuals?

Lately I am noticing a lot of interest from the robotics community in developing robots to help autistic individuals.  Some of these efforts are based on technology push, i.e., people have developed a cool new robot and they would like to see if autistic individuals can benefit from using it.  Some efforts are genuinely targeted at understanding the needs of the autistic individuals and developing solutions to help them.

This post shares my thoughts on this topic based on our family’s experiences in raising an autistic daughter. Let me begin by setting the context.  Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder that affects the brain development.  Representative symptoms associated with autism include difficulty with social interaction, limited verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Individuals with autism face many challenges in their daily lives.

The intensity of symptoms associated with autism can vary from mild to very severe and there is a considerable variation in symptoms.  Experts use the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to refer to autism and related disorders.  It is often said that no two autistic individuals are alike. According to the recent statistics, one out of every eighty eight children born in the U.S. is diagnosed with ASD.  Unfortunately, there is no known medical cure for autism, making it a pressing social problem.

Individuals with ASD struggle every day to live in the world designed for neuro-typical individuals.  Most autistic individuals are hyper sensitive and often experience sensory overloads. Sounds, smells, and sights that might appear normal to most people often can overpower the senses of autistic individuals. They use stimulatory repetitive behaviors to compensate for the sensory overload.  Many autistic individuals struggle with language. They have a basic understanding of the vocabulary and grammar, but advanced language concepts are often foreign to them. Many autistic individuals are good in picking up body language cues from their peers and can sense the disapproval and rejection of their behaviors by their neuro-typical peers. However, most autistic individuals are helpless in controlling their behaviors; their own bodies and brains betray them every day.

Here is how the world might appear to an autistic teen as he/she goes through the daily life. Imagine that you are in the 10th grade science class.  The heating system in the class is making a really loud annoying thumping noise. This is crippling your ability to think. You try to cover your ears and start humming to drown that excruciating sound.  Your science teacher is delivering the science lecture in a “foreign language”. You understand the basics, but you are unable to follow the advanced vocabulary being used in the class. You are extremely frustrated and the stress is making it impossible for you to sit in your seat, so you are constantly fidgeting. You are noticing disapproving looks from your peers who find you weird and annoying. You are feeling humiliated and unwelcome in the class. You would like to fit in, but you are unable to control movements of your own body. The teacher has just announced that the next class will have a quiz. Quizzes make you really anxious and now you can feel a knot forming in your stomach.  Nausea has kicked in and the simple task of walking from Science classroom to English classroom appears to be a Herculean task.    

Unfortunately,  parents are often helpless and unable to eliminate the pain and suffering of their ASD children.  Providing care for autistic individuals can be emotionally and physically exhausting.   Most parents try very hard to improve lives of their children
. Unfortunately, they also worry non-stop as to what will happen to their ASD sons and daughters as they grow old and unable to care for them.  Unfortunately, there is no good answer.  This can be a tiring, frustrating, and heart-breaking experience.  But this unfortunate adversity in life also showcases the resiliency of the human spirit. You meet so many individuals who do not give up and continue to fight incredibility hard to put one more smile on the faces of their loved ones and make the world a fair place by demanding universal accessibility.
Given this background, the question is - can robots play a role in improving the lives of autistic individuals?  We will have to approach this question very carefully as learning to interact with humans is a key to the survival of autistic individuals in the neuro-typical world. Robots should not try to reduce the human involvement in the lives of autistic individuals. However, robots can be useful in one of the following situations:
  1. Increasing the human interaction will be detrimental to the intended outcome.
  2. The use of robots can significantly improve the quality of life for autistic individuals.
  3. Humans with the right expertise are not available to meet the needs of autistic individuals.
Here are my preliminary thoughts on potential applications of robots based on the above described situations.  
  • Overcoming Positive Interaction Deficit: The human brain is wired to seek positive social interaction. Many autistic individuals also crave positive social interaction. However, it is very hard for them to interact with neuro-typical individuals and this can be quite frustrating for them. The lack of adequate amount of positive social interaction can lead to severe depression. In my opinion, there is no good way for us to overcome positive interaction deficit faced by autistic individuals by increasing the human interaction.  Human interaction is extremely important, but simply increasing the amount of human interaction does not mean that autistic individuals perceive this increase in a positive light. In fact, many autistic individuals prefer to interact with animals instead of humans because animals are non-judgmental and reciprocate affection unconditionally.  However, many autistic individuals are unable to take care of pets. I believe that robots can be designed to entertain, stimulate positive interaction, and uplift the moods of autistic individuals. Such robots must be carefully designed to ensure that they fulfill the positive interaction deficit and not try to replace the need for interacting with humans.       
  • Improving Safety and Independence:  Many autistic individuals lack the basic notions of safety. This significantly worries caregivers and interferes with the freedom and personal space of autistic individuals. I believe that robotics-based technologies can be developed and adopted to enhance safety and independence of autistic individuals. These technologies can be used for safety monitoring (e.g., kitchen stove is switched off after use, medicine was taken on time), assist with household chores (e.g., cleaning), and navigation in complex surroundings (e.g., finding a store in a mall). There are many interesting technologies being developed for assisted living facilities that might find use in homes of autistic individuals. These technologies are not likely to look like a typical robot, but we should not care about the form.        
  • Improving Training and Education:  We have to find a way to create meaningful employment opportunities for autistic individuals. Not doing this will create a significant financial strain on the rest of the society. Many autistic individuals have natural talents such as computers, music, and mathematics. These talents should be nurtured and harnessed. Learning to function well in the society will require developing appropriate social interaction skills such as making eye contact, reacting appropriately to facial expressions and body language, and making small talk. Currently autistic individuals get very limited opportunities to practice and hone these skills. Robots can be designed to enable autistic individuals to practice these skills for extended periods of time. It is very difficult to put effective special education teachers in all the classrooms with autistic children. Telepresence robots might be able to expand that geographic reach of superstar special education teachers and contribute to the training of autistic individuals.                   
I believe robots can play a useful role in improving the lives of autistic individuals, but we should take extreme care to ensure that robots do not displace humans from the lives of ASD individuals. Ultimately, human contact and interaction will be vital for ASD individuals to function well in the society.