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07 October

ISER, Talk at Kyoto U, off to Seoul

The Symposium on Experimental Robotics was very interesting. It's s small single track meeting where you really get to talk to the individuals who are working on projects with a strong experimental flavor. I have attended the meeting many times and would have to say the quality is probably increasing, perhaps consonant with the increasing impact and importance of robotics world wide. Perhaps the most surprising talk I heard was from Carrick Detweiler's lab where they have a flying vehicle that is used to create controlled burns to manage natural resources. To put that more bluntly, it's a quadrotor that spits out flaming/explosive balls to cause the ground below to catch on fire.

Our own work on using teams of different kinds of robots to monitor/measure coral reefs went well and was delivered by Alberto Li. In that work as use a temp of three different kinds if marine vehicle to collect ocean data at different spatial and temporal scales.

On a personal note I loved walking around Tokyo, which is a city with amazing energy.

Afterwards, I went to visit Kyoto University where I gave a colloquium on research projects in our lab, then I got to visit David Avis.

Now I'm off to Seoul Korea en route to the IROS 2016 Conference (International Conference on Robots and Systems) , a multi-thousand-person robotics meeting. The anti-reflective coating on my eyeglasses has started to peel off, perhaps from the humidity here. I'm going to check out Namdaemun Market, in the center of Seoul, where I can apparently pick up a good pair of glasses fast and on the cheap. That should be an adventure! Namdaemun is the biggest traditional market in Korea and seems to sell everything, with some shops have their own factories.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
14 June

ICRA 2017 Singapore

ICRA2017 recently took place in Singapore. As usual, it was accompanied by a constellation of workshops and special meetings including an organizing meeting our our ICRA2019 group, a very nice workshop on self-driving cars, and a satellite meeting at NUS on marine robotics. ICRA is the flagship conference of the robotics and automation society and the premiere venue for robotics researchers to exchange ideas, results, news, technologies and generally do networking. The meeting had over 2,400 attendees which reflects the growing shift from pure long-term academic research to immediate socio-economic impact. Even though this is a research meeting, not an industrial development meeting (like RoboBusiness), it includes a growing trade show, a lot of industrial engagement, and an increasingly hot recruiting component.

While the main research themes apparent at the conference were largely predictable outgrowths of ongoing trends, there are continuing shifts in emphasis that I noticed.

Notably, soft robotics is growing in impact and has some interesting implications for manipulation. Self-driving vehicles are such an obvious theme that they are hardly worth mentioning as a "new theme", except to observe there is a bit of a bifurcation between some of the long term research in the domain and some of the more pragmatic stuff that is not being exposed in public due to its commercial impact and potential. At the self-driving car workshop, for example, there was a notable lack of technical details in all the presentations from commercially-driven researchers. While deep learning is making significant inroads and having an impact on robotics, its effects are more nuanced than in, say computer vision, due to the importance of physical embodiment, system integration and the diverse set of issues that distinguish robotics from man other research disciplines. The majority of good university labs, including ours, are working at the intersection of robotics and deep learning, but there was a lot of exciting research that didn't need to invoke that technology at all, or only as a small black box. One of my favorite sub-themes was related to policy transfer and policy sharing. Another theme I thought was interesting and rapidly maturing, but which we don't work on, was event cameras.

Notably, two important figures and friends of mine won major awards for their ongoing work: Oussama Khatib from Stanford and Vijay Kumar from Penn. Both of these researchers have made, and continue to make, major impact on the field it is was great to see them recognized. Best paper awards went to Kostas Daniilidis and his coauthors from U Penn on Semantic SLAM and to Dieter Fox (U Washington) and his co-authors (also from Oculus) for "Self-supervised Visual Descriptor Learning for Dense Correspondence". My student Jimmy Li also works on aspects semantic SLAM and its both exciting and a bit stressful to see the rapid progress in the field.

Of course, with hundreds of results being presented as well as a diverse set of side meetings, my representation of the conference is obviously very subjective and unavoidably incomplete. Overall the paper quality seems good, the organization was superb and the venues was beautiful. Singapore was an impressive place with fabulous infrastructure and an exciting mix of cultures.

Here I am in Singapore

Award ceremony for

Oussama Khatib (Stanford)

Marina Bay Sands, the official hotel

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
02 August

The risk that robots (including soft-bots and other AI-based technology) will take over many people's jobs has been getting a lot of play recently. A notably interesting read is Our Automated Future: How long will it be before you lose your job to a robot? in the New Yorker. The fact that jobs change, and in fact are rendered obsolete, by advances in technology is not new: it's been happening for over a century. What's different is that this rate of job displacement is accelerating.

The even bigger issue is that the advent of intelligent robotics seems to foreshadow a much broader-based displacement of jobs and the need to work at all! In a recent survey, most robotics/AI/ML experts think that machines will be better than humans at just about EVERYTHING by 2060. Of course, the idea that people may need to work little, or not at all, was forecast by Keynes almost a century ago. So far, we also find more to want, more to need and more to strive for beyond the bare essentials. The desire to do more, buy more and compete with your neighbour, constantly redefining what is "essential", just keeps people slaving away ... so far. Does this trend ever end?

In the next couple of decades it's pretty certain that the need to work will diminish or vanish for the majority of people to the extent that it is required to subsist. This, of course, assumes that some social mechanism for distributing resources (food, money, goodies) will be put in place. How society chooses to deal with the distribution of wealth is not a matter of robotics or AI, but human compassion, greed, and social norms.

Robots will be driving us around, buying our groceries and preparing our food. Robot will be cleaning the house and doing the dishes. Will they also keep us busy inventing chores for us?

What is especially new is how this "liberation" will impact our day-to-day lives. Will be all sit around watching reading books all day, will we invent new leisure-based jobs and become tennis instructions, competitors or pro esports players and watchers, or will we descend into some new virtual existence? Some of the biggest risks associated with robotics and AI is no that robotics will kill people, but that we will have so much freedom that we will have to reinvent and redefine what we really wan to do with our time and our lives.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
26 July

Fifth anniversary of the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network

There is little doubt that we are on the brink of an enormous transformation to a society where robotics technologies are omnipresent. This process is one that is unstoppable, unprecedented and which promises immense opportunities.

Robotics technologies have already become quite familiar, including the iconic "classical robots" like the automated vacuum cleaners or flying drone vehicles, but also indisputably robotic devices like automated teller machines and washing machines, all of which sense their immediate environment, make computations, and transform their computations into tangible physical form.

"So, what is a robot anyhow", you might ask? Robotics in its broadest form can be defined as the discipline concerned with both the development and modeling of systems that (1) make measurements of the real world, (2) perform computations, and then (3) act upon the real world in some substantial way. By this definition, more and more of the objects in our everyday world are becoming robots, and this is happening rapidly. This includes, of course, cell phones, cars, security systems, and many of the appliances in our homes. The microwave oven in my own home, for example, measures the weight and humidity of food we put into it, computes the appropriate cooking time and power levels needed, and then acts upon the food to cook it. As almost every object within our lives becomes computationally enabled, myriad new challenges, opportunities and advantages in everyday life are starting to emerge.

The constructs of computer science (such as computer operating systems) are already the most complex things mankind has ever built. Devices that cross the boundary between software and hardware -- that is robotic devices -- push this limit such further. Thus, as the science of robotics, including the associated disciplines of artificial intelligence and machine learning advance, we are finding new challenges not only in terms or what want to achieve, but also in terms of how to understand and manage the systems we build, and how to best exploit them.

The NSERC Canadian Field Robotic Network, with its base at McGill, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. In the last five years is has funded and graduated some 75 students with advanced degrees (PhD and MSc), funded some 285 person-years of advanced research, and led to the publications of hundreds of scientific papers. This, in turn, has led to new ideas transferred to our partner companies, new employees, and several seed or startup companies at various stages. Most importantly, it has allowed the Canadian robotics research community to grow, link together and build collaborations and synergies within the country.

The competitive pressure is immense today with vast amounts of robotics funding being deployed in the US, Japan Korea, Singapore, the European Union, the United Kingdom and other places. By funding our own national research programs we have allowed some truly amazing internationally recognized talent to develop and flourish. Even better, by exposing our students to the diversity and richness of Canadian talent, we have been able to retain more of them in the country. Going forward, we need to maintain our focus, plan how we deploy our resources and build a cohesive national plan.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
09 October

The International Conference on Robots and Systems

The IEEE/RSJ IROS conference recently took place in Vancouver and it was the biggest, and one of the best, meetings in this series of conferences to ever take place. It was also the 30th anniversary of this series of international meetings.
As usual, there were a couple of days of workshops and meetings, and three main days of technical sessions with close to 1000 original research papers being presented.

With ICRA coming to Montreal in 2019 I am paying particular attention to how other robotics meetings are being organized and what the venues are like. I must say that Vancouver really raised the bar to a frightening level (for future organizers) with a beautiful location, an excellent conference banquet, and a generally well-organized meeting overall.

Of course, learning is a key to much of robotics these days. Learning was one of the top keywords associated with published papers this year. Of the five papers from our lab, all five were about the interaction on learning and robotics (one of the papers was actually at ROSCon which preceded IROS).

Big crowd at Dieter's plenary

Although I could only see a small fraction of the talks myself, I got to see some of what the community thought were the best papers by virtue of being on the awards committee. Robot design make something of a resurgence exemplified by the best paper award going to a paper on the design and analysis of the jumping robot Salto-1P (by Haldane, Yim and Fearing). Human robot interaction continues to be a hot topic, a trend I expect to see continue for many years to come. Maja Matric gave a great plenary on her work in this important domain and urged the attendees to focus more deeply on getting robotics to people with profound needs. Among other favorite talks was the plenary by Dieter Fox and a keynote from Oliver Brock, both exceptionally creative and thoughtful souls, and also exceptional speakers -- also great dinner companions and we went out for the best sushi I've had since Tokyo. This was at Sushi Bar Maumi on Bute St. It only seats a total 11 people in groups no larger than 4, and you get to watch the Sushi being prepared at the bar in traditional Japanese style.

Sushi Maumi
Sushi Maumi
(Click to expand)

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
07 December

Fall is always a busy time in our lab and this year is definitely no exception. We are several different kinds of projects coming to fruition some of them getting ready for testing in the ocean in January. These include some small embedded devices that report data in various ways, as well as some larger oceanborn crafts that will work in collaboration with other vehicles. In addition we have some new theoretical work, a couple of big grants in play, and some exciting you industrial collaborations.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
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