The International Conference on Robotics and Automation took place in Hong Kong the week before last and with a few of my students I was able to attend (and we present four papers on our work). Each year this conference gets bigger, and this year there were over 2,000 attendees, which is probably symptomatic of the growing importance and impact of robotics today. There were 19 parallel tracks meaning that for any single attendee there was a good chance there was more than one talk of interest going on at any given moment. On one hand this is bad, since it make it impossible to hear all the relevant talks. On the other hand, it was a lot better than squeezing all the talks into a smaller number of tracks and giving them insufficient time to present the results gully. In short, given the growth in the field, I though this was a good compromise.
Computational and algorithmic issues continue to be the key, and perhaps even growing, theme in robotics, as opposed to the also import issues of mechanism design, dynamics etc. There were several nice talks (and papers) on using computer vision to address issues in robotics. Vision and robotics used to be joined together under the once-ill-defined umbrella of artificial intelligence. Those areas separated into different communities well over a decade ago, but as each matures the links are begging to re-emerge. It is about time to see the areas coming together again. In fact, I think there is a sound argument to be made that vision and AI are both best regarded as sub-fields of robotics, which is the amorphous umbrella that captures humanityís efforts to replication human and biological capabilities with all the sub-themes interacting. Thus, vision in the context of robotics is become more and more important and mature. Underwater robotics is also a theme of growing prominence, as is the combination of sensing and manipulation.
While in Hong Kong I had a chance to do a tiny bit of sight seeing, including a great trip to the Mainland China city of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a key industrial center, and the place where many of todayís consumer electronics are fabricated. The abundance of electrics manufacturing, development and prototyping was really impressive. I have often observed that Silicon Valley (where I once lived) has good resources for electronics prototyping and technology development. In Japan, however, the popular level of access and appreciation to such activities is much greater, and in a big department store one can find real beakers, test tubes and soldering irons beside the toys, dresses and dishware (then this is good quality scientific material, not just kiddie-toy stuff that one finds in Montreal). Well, at least for electronics Shenzhen takes this trends to a far far far higher level, with a plethora of devices, tools, resources so tremendously available and accessible that any comparison with North America is almost laughable. It was cool, fun, impressive and maybe a bit frightening. As for the regarding to items and ideas that are supposed to be protected by intellectual property legislation, thatís also an interesting story.
All in all, Hong Kong and Shenzhen combined a top robotics conference with a very educational little outing to where the consumer electronics world has its nexus. In addition, I got to see a few great sights and eat some delicious (and sometimes challenging) food.