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07 February

Well, the robot field trials I mention in my last report took place as planned. While we tested the robot in warm water and that was great, the schedule was grueling with long days and 3 or more simultaneous experiments taking place most of the time. Especially amazing was the fact that pretty much of the experiments produced successful results. There were a couple of mishaps, including at least one serious one, but that's par for the course. If all of the experiments work and nobody gets hurt, then that's a (very) successful field trip, even if some gear (inevitably) gets fried.

When you are doing field robotics, and especially robotics on the open water, some equipment damage it pretty much inevitable, especially when people are working under (extreme) pressure.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
18 February

I was at Memorial University in Newfoundland giving at talk. In addition to visiting people in the Computer Science Department like Professors Sharene Bungay and Andrew Vardy, I also spent some time with Ralf Bachmayer (Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science; Marine Institute) as well as some other faculty members. In addition to a generally-robust general computer science program, there is a lot going on there related to Oceanography, Underwater Robotics and general topics related to the sea. That's no big surprise given the location of the school on the Eastern Seaboard, the historical dependence of the Newfoundland economy on the sea, and the relative lack of other non-maritime industries in the area. As a result, they have unparalleled resources for ocean studies.

Among the interesting things was a huge ice tank at the National Research Council (NRC) Institute for Ocean Technology (IOT) (distinct from Memorial). I believe it is the biggest such tank anywhere in the world. The IOT is a secure facility, but I had a chance to look around inside. There are several projects there that are under wraps, including contract work for America's Cup sailing teams. The ice tank is extremely large, 3 metres deep, 90 m long, contains 3.5 million litres of water and can be cooled off to produce a layer of ice of a specific thickness and texture, which can then be used to test the ice worthiness of ship designs. Want a huge basin covered with 4cm think ice? Just give them a day to make it for you.

In the wave tank they have there, they can use 168 computer-controlled wave panels positioned around the basin to reproduce a large variety of ocean conditions. This tank is not as deep of the one I saw in Rio de Janiero a while ago, but more controllable.

They also have a selection of Seagliders, a model of a military submarine that can be used for certain types of open-water testing, and lots of other activities.

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16 June

Last week I was in London, England with my daughter and we had a chance to visit the British Museum. It is, of course, an exceptional cross section of the human civilization. What of the great aspects of the collections are their breadth: the way you can compare and contrast are creations of different civilizations that are greatly separated by time and geography. For example we visited the Elgin marbles from ancient Greece, and then almost immediately afterwards went to see a collection of Chinese Buddhas and then, on the way out, I had a chance to look at one of the heads from Easter Island.

During the visit I was struck by two obvious realizations. Firstly, there is both a huge diversity, variety and depth of feeling that various civilizations have been able to express in their artworks. Even though the subject matter at hand is often the same, different cultures have managed to depict is highly characteristic ways. Even one civilizations are closely related and intentionally use the same expressive forms, as with Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, the individual nature of the local context is irrepressible. Much like different people interpreting a Rorschach, each civilization cannot help but leave it's own unique signature.

Secondly, the immense productivity and impact of our current technological civilization are totally out of keeping with everything that has come before. Not only has our current phase been amazing brief so far, but the extent of its impact is completely off the scale in every possible measure. We all know there are been immense technological chance in the last hundred years, but seeing the artifact of one long-lived civilization after another provides tremendous emphasis to how weird and anomalous the last hundred years have been. It's not just technology, but the nature of what we are now producing that is so different.

In some ways a species is defined not merely by its genome (DNA) or phenotype, but by the information matrix is carries along with it. For many species this matrix of ideas, behaviors and thoughts is encoded in DNA and constantly rebuilt (for example, with ants). For some non-human species, there are substantive cultural characteristics that are passed from parent to child, as with some hunting animals of chimpanzee clans. It is similarly easy to imagine that if true machine intelligence is every achieved, then the information matrix that defines it will be the primal characteristic of a species, just as it defines the distinction between Microsoft Word versus Apple's iPhoto. For humans today, it seems we have crossed a barrier between a state where the information binding us was evanescent, as with ants, to a very different mode of existence where our species has been redefined by a combination of physical form and information state.

Mummy at the British Museum
Mummy at the British Museum

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26 August

I had the honor of speaking at a working at MIT yesterday on the testing of robotics systems. My own talk was heavily based our experiences testing our robotic boat, robot plane and underwater vehicles. The field trials we do involve a range of challenges in terms of experiment planning, but also including logistics, safety and team management.

The workshop overall was motivated by a project called PATFrame that deals with understanding and optimizing test planning, especially for large military-sponsored robotics projects. Other participants from the US government and military spoke about the challenges of testing adaptive systems that both change over time, and also exhibit performance which depends on (variable) features of the environment. In short, it is essentially impossible to cover al possible conditions when a system is so versatile and complex.

As intelligent systems gradually approach the complexity and richness of humans, testing them definitively will become as tricky as testing people. Even when you think you know a person very well, they can exhibit surprising behavior and there is no way to preclude the same phenomena from robotics systems. This poses a challenge not only for testers, but for society at large.

Robot Attack
Robot Attack: did we test it enough

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21 October

One of many meetings at the IROS conference in Taipei, Taiwan

The IROS conference organizing committee dinner took place at the top of the Taiwan 101 building, which was very classy and pleasant. It is one of the tallest buildings is the world (and used to be the tallest of all not so long ago). A lot of people worked hard to make the conference a success and many of them were at the dinner.

I chatted with, and sat with, some old friends (like Martin Buehler and Raja Chatila) and made some new friends (like Steve Cousins) and generally had a good time. The continual rain even cleared up for a while and we got a view out over Taipei. We also heard about the history of IROS over the last two decades or so since it was founded.

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08 January

My quick visit to India

In late December I had a chance to attend the International Symposium on Robotics Research (ISER) in New Delhi, India. We presented our work on human-robot interaction, a paper co-authored by my student Junaed Sattar and myself that dealt with the value and positive impact of allowing a robot to ask questions when it was given commands that it was unsure about.

ISER 2010

ISER is a relatively small meeting that attracts a good number of high quality papers and well-established people. Since it is a less-visible meeting, the work that shows up there is sometimes less mature and perhaps more exploratory than what appears at, say, RSS and so you can get a view of upcoming ideas before they hit the mainstream. In addition, for groups like ours that have a particular interest in experimental issues, it is a valuable venue.

This year it seemed that there was increased attention to issues of interaction between robotic systems and humans, a trend that has been occurring across several venues. This is symptomatic of the fact that robotic systems are become more and more potentially useful in practice.


Greg and Humayun's Tomb, India

Visiting India was both a huge boon, since I have always wanted to go there, and also a huge chore since it takes a lot of time, money and energy to make such a trip. I was only able to spend a few days on the subcontinent, but managed to visit the Taj Mahal, shop on the incredibly energetic Chadni Chowk in Old Delhi, and see a couple of other impressive sights.

Chadni Chowk is a major shopping street in Old Delhi. It is often listed as one of the "sights to see," but it is very much not a touristic venue. I walked it's length one day (despite brutal jet lag) and don't think I saw another person who was conspicuously a tourist. Most of the stores open in the late morning or early afternoon and by 3pm things are very very busy. The sidewalk is jam packed and using it means being jostled frequently and often obstructed by either a delivery, a mess on the sidewalk, or some other event. Many people use the edges of the road to walk, but this involves contenting with deliver carts, water buffalo, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, cars and even the odd truck. It's exciting but requires constant alertness to avoid getting into an accident. For a single guy it's great, but i would think twice before doing it as a single female tourist or with youngsters.

Shopping street: Chadni Chowk, Old Delhi

Getting a genuinely good deal shopping on Chadni Chowk probably depends on not looking conspicuously like a tourist: that's not an option for most visitors. Not only is skin color a factor, but when I was there with a friend the mere fact that his Hindi didn't "sound right" marked him as somebody who should pay elevated prices. This doesn't mean that as a visitor you shouldn't bargain, or that you won't get a good price for things you buy, it's simply that you won't get as good a price as the local people. Given the difference is standards of living between India and Canada, that's seems fair to me. Moreover, my impression that that even a moderate deal on Chadni Chowk is comparable to the prices in more touristic stores: the key thing, as with any bargaining, is to have some idea what you are asking for, and what kinds of price you should be seeking.

One of the striking features of India, based on my superficial visit, is the extreme contrasts between splendor and ugliness, poverty and richness, and the multi-layered diversity of ... well, everything! Even the electrical wires in Old Delhi exemplify this, as there are layers and layers of wires that have been successively imposed. Normally we rant about the wiring in some of our facilities, so the photo below should be an object lesson regarding how lucky we really are.

Crazy wiring in Old Delhi, India

Jamas Masjid Mosque designed by Ustad Khalil
and featuring 130 ft tall minarets

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