Speeding up the robot revolution

What's holding back robots is computer vision - you have machines that can physically do just about anything, but what's lacking is object recognition. And the problem for that is really just a matter of marketing current technology (machine learning techniques such as neural networks) so that more people use them.

I'd like to see a marketplace for perception tasks created.

Basic Premise


Small companies/individuals to start producing small fragments of functionality and offering it in a per for use basis. (as in a cat recognizer in an image, or a recognizer for the word "hello" in an audiofile).

To create the above recognizer would require gathering data (such as hundreds/thousands of pictures of cats) and feeding it to a supervised learning algorithm like svm, boosting etc.

Thousands (perhaps millions) of people creating their own "classifiers" and charging for them (perhaps 1000 uses for 1 dollar) over the web might lead rapidly to seeing/thinking machines.

The Surveillance/Video Analytics Industry (as an initial example)


Person detectors already exist, used in surveillance, but it's mostly out of the reach of consumers, analogous to the situation that exists between enterprise software like SAP/Oracle and consumer/small business software such that you find on the web. Currently only large/ midsize companies and governments employ the technology because it's still too expensive - teams of consultants coming in to set up multimillion dollar installations with equipment from only a handful of manufacturers.

To get into the industry today (as an entrepreneur) you need to not only develop all the software, usually integrate it into a camera as an embedded application, but also find sales reps/distributors willing to sell your product (who would go around shaking hands to get it sold).

Instead it could be the following

Imagine that you have webcam, and you want to monitor whether someone comes to your front door, automatically. You can set up the wifi webcam to look form the front window or fit it outside and your video feed would go to someone's software out in the "cloud", where a "packaged" set of detectors might work. The person's age/sex/clothing (wearing a jacket or not etc). would be detected. You would pay for this by use. For example a person detector might continously run, you might end up paying say 10 dollars a month for it (accumulated over micropayments of .0001 cent per detection). Every time a person is detected, this data would be sent to someone else's age detector and you might pay 1 cent for every determination of a person's age, so you might end up only paying 1 dollar on average accumulated over the month for it (100 people might come to your door in a month).

You might want this type of surveillance for nighbourhood watch (a community of homeowners, condo association), get together to have cameras fitted throughout a street and person recognizers (that actually identify people from face, gait, clothing combination) might to improve security.

Another use could be for elderly monitoring, for classroom monitoring, or for monitoring the babysitter, or for monitoring yourself (automatically have a log of activities you do throughout the day).

Now, hook this up to robots.

How It Applies To Robots


Roomba cannot see anything so it blindly bounces around. Imagine a network of small cameras that you put in each room (similar to how you might hook up speakers throughout a room) monitor and guide the roomba. All the furniture, people, pets, obstacles are detected out in the cloud and you pay for use. It might require 10 computers working simultaneously to do this task, consumers won't pay for 10 computers just so that they roomba can vacuum a few times a week, but they would be willing to pay, let's say 2 dollars for one hour of automated vacuuming (amazon currently charges 10 cents per cpu hour, so 10 computers working for an hour - 1 dollar, and then add bandwith charges and profit to make it 2).

If you look at Anybots, their plan is that people will buy their robots and have people from india remotely operate them to do household tasks (and in restaurants, offices, factories), people in the cloud if you will. There will an economic imperative for increasing amounts of automation to be added (as in anything), and so "classifiers in the cloud" with different companies specializing in different tasks will result, until eventually no human operaters are involved.

(ie. a way to keep the momentum in the market going would be to have remote human operators in the mix).

Payments is a nonissue, amazon web services already can do metered charging (to you and your customer), and it's technically a pretty simple matter to set up a prepay system with paypal (your customer prepays you, say 50 dollars, and you keep a usage log).

Democratization Of Machine Vision


My point is about the "democratization" of classifer creation. I personally am not a programmer and don't have the talent to create a startup, and there are millions more people like me. However, if there were a place where i could feed some data and have a classifier hosted somewhere I could participate in this.

It's the same way blogs allowed many more people to start creating content on the web, whereas previously it required creating and hosting a website. Or how google app engine, might increase the creeation of web applications because previously a lot of people didn't have knowledge of administering and scaling unix/dbms based applications.

What I'm suggesting is that a "gold rush" type situation form around the building of classifiers, such as that occurred with website creation. There are millions trying to get an income onlne creating content for adsense and affilate programs (and for free with wikipedia and open source). Most will fail at generating full time income but in the process a large amount of wealth has been created. The same could be done for classifiers/artifical intelligence. It would require just collecting a thousand or two pieces of data (image/sudio/text) to create a classifier, an effort similar to creating a small website.

Robot Hardware Creators


In the above analogy, robot hardware creators would be like computer/ cellphone manufacturers. However, unlike what occurred with personal computers, there will be much more opportunity to innovate (and hence much more opportunity for entrepreneurs):

- no standardization (monopoly) around operating system need occur, since the almost all the software (perception/cognition) is out on the web created by many different producers and so much open source software exists today for low level tasks (linux).

- the design space is larger, you don't standardize around keyboard/ mouse/monitor/cpu/motherboard and just compete on cost/visual design, but instead can compete on a huge number of functional aspects (2/4/6/10 legs, 1/2/10 eyes, end effector designs, and so on) as well as visual design (of which there is also a much greater variation - different types of skins, faces, shapes of animals).

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What's holding back robots is cheap labor. We used to have automatic car washes. Now we have "100% hand car wash".

John Nagle

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John Nagle

Remarkably asute observation, John.

-- Randy M. Dumse

Objects in mirror are more confused then they appear.

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In addition to cheap human labor there's:

  1. Mechaanisms that are no where near robust enough to survive real-world applications. The failure rate from damage would be astronomical, and so would the costs.

  1. Liability insurance even for robots teleoperated. A service robot falling over onto Grandma will set your insurer back a few cool million. After that you won't be able to get insurance, and therefore you won't be able to remain in business.

  2. Single-function solutions will continue to be far, far cheaper than generic robotic appliances, in terms of product development cycles and cost-of-goods.

...and a bunch of others we've been through before.

OTOH, robots are still great for all the things people seem to ignore, like manufacuring and certain military applications.

-- Gordon

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Gordon McComb

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