Robotics

AI-Enhanced Weed-Killing Robots Frighten Pesticide Industry (reuters.com) 152

Rick Schumann writes: A Swiss company called ecoRobotix is betting the agricultural industry will be willing to welcome their solar-powered weed-killing autonomous robot, in an effort to reduce the use of herbicides by up to a factor of 20 and perhaps even eliminate the need for herbicide-resistant GMO crops entirely.

The 'see-and-spray' robot goes from plant to plant, visually differentiating the actual crops and weeds, and squirting the weeds selectively and precisely with weed killer, as opposed to the current technique of using large quantities of weed killer like Monsantos' Roundup to spray entire crops.

Weeds are already becoming resistant to such glyphosate-based herbicides after "more than 20 years of near-ubiquitous use," reports Reuters. (The head of one pesticide company's science division concedes that "That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime product.") But AI-based precision spraying "could mean established herbicides whose effect has worn off on some weeds could be used successfully in more potent, targeted doses."

Meanwhile, another Silicon Valley startup has built a machine using on-board cameras to distinguish weeds from crops -- and was recently acquired by the John Deere tractor company. Reuters calls these companies the "new breed of AI weeders that investors say could disrupt the $100 billion pesticides and seeds industry."

The original submission asks: Should we welcome our weed-killing robotic overlords?
Robotics

Robot Worries Could Cause a 50,000-Worker Strike in Las Vegas (technologyreview.com) 317

Thousands of unionized hotel and casino workers in Las Vegas are ready to go on strike for the first time in more than three decades. From a report: Members of the Culinary Union, who work in many of the city's biggest casinos, have voted to approve a strike unless a deal is reached soon. Some background: On June 1, the contracts of 50,000 union workers expire, making them eligible to strike. Employees range from bartenders to guest room attendants. The last casino worker strike, in 1984, lasted 67 days and cost more than $1 million a day. Why? Higher wages, naturally. But the workers are also looking for better job security, especially from robots. "We support innovations that improve jobs, but we oppose automation when it only destroys jobs," says Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union. "Our industry must innovate without losing the human touch."
AI

Ask Slashdot: Could Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics Ensure Safe AI? (wikipedia.org) 234

"If science-fiction has already explored the issue of humans and intelligent robots or AI co-existing in various ways, isn't there a lot to be learned...?" asks Slashdot reader OpenSourceAllTheWay. There is much screaming lately about possible dangers to humanity posed by AI that gets smarter and smarter and more capable and might -- at some point -- even decide that humans are a problem for the planet. But some seminal science-fiction works mulled such scenarios long before even 8-bit home computers entered our lives.
The original submission cites Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics from the 1950 collection I, Robot.
  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

The original submission asks, "If you programmed an AI not to be able to break an updated and extended version of Asimov's Laws, would you not have reasonable confidence that the AI won't go crazy and start harming humans? Or are Asimov and other writers who mulled these questions 'So 20th Century' that AI builders won't even consider learning from their work?"

Wolfrider (Slashdot reader #856) is an Asimov fan, and writes that "Eventually I came across an article with the critical observation that the '3 Laws' were used by Asimov to drive plot points and were not to be seriously considered as 'basics' for robot behavior. Additionally, Giskard comes up with a '4th Law' on his own and (as he is dying) passes it on to R. Daneel Olivaw."

And Slashdot reader Rick Schumann argues that Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics "would only ever apply to a synthetic mind that can actually think; nothing currently being produced is capable of any such thing, therefore it does not apply..."

But what are your own thoughts? Do you think Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics could ensure safe AI?


AI

Google's Duplex AI Robot Will Warn That Calls Are Recorded (bloomberg.com) 28

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Bloomberg: On Thursday, the Alphabet Inc. unit shared more details on how the Duplex robot-calling feature will operate when it's released publicly, according to people familiar with the discussion. Duplex is an extension of the company's voice-based digital assistant that automatically phones local businesses and speaks with workers there to book appointments. At Google's weekly TGIF staff meeting on Thursday, executives gave employees their first full Duplex demo and told them the bot would identify itself as the Google assistant. It will also inform people on the phone that the line is being recorded in certain jurisdictions, the people said.
Businesses

The Boston Restaurant Where Robots Have Replaced the Chefs (washingtonpost.com) 110

Started by a group of 20-something robotics engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who partnered with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, Spyce in downtown Boston is founded on the idea that a fulfilling meal can be more science than spontaneity [Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source]. From a report: The restaurant's founders have replaced human chefs with seven automated cooking pots that simultaneously whip up meals in three minutes or less. A brief description of meal preparation -- courtesy of 26-year-old co-founder, Michael Farid -- can sound more like laboratory instructions than conventional cooking. "Once you place your order, we have an ingredient delivery system that collects them from the fridge," Farid said.

"The ingredients are portioned into the correct sizes and then delivered to a robotic wok, where they are tumbled at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. The ingredients are cooked and seared. And once the process is complete, the woks tilt downward and put food into a bowl. And then they're ready to be garnished and served." Spyce bills itself as "the world's first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals," a distinction that appears to reference burger-flipping robots like "Flippy," who plied his trade in a California fast food kitchen before being temporary suspended -- because he wasn't working fast enough.

Earth

A Fleet of Sailing Robots Sets Out To Quantify the Oceans (bloomberg.com) 76

pacopico writes: A start-up in California called Saildrone has built a fleet of robotic sailboats that are gathering tons of data about the oceans. The saildrones rely on a hard, carbon-fiber sail to catch wind, and solar panels to power all of their electronics and sensors. "Each drone carries at least $100,000 of electronics, batteries, and related gear," reports Businessweek. "Devices near the tip of the sail measure wind speed and direction, sunlight, air temperature and pressure, and humidity. Across the top of the drone's body, other electronics track wave height and period, carbon dioxide levels, and the strength of the Earth's magnetic field. Underwater, sensors monitor currents, dissolved oxygen levels, and water temperature, acidity, and salinity. Sonars and other acoustic instruments try to identify animal life." So far they've been used to find sharks, monitor fisheries, check on climate change and provide weather forecasts. Saildrone just raised $90 million to build a fleet of 1,000 drones, which it thinks will be enough to measure all of the world's oceans.
Robotics

Researchers Create First Flying Wireless Robotic Insect (newatlas.com) 64

An anonymous reader quotes a report from New Atlas: You might remember RoboBee, an insect-sized robot that flies by flapping its wings. Unfortunately, though, it has to be hard-wired to a power source. Well, one of RoboBee's creators has now helped develop RoboFly, which flies without a tether. Slightly heavier than a toothpick, RoboFly was designed by a team at the University of Washington -- one member of that team, assistant professor Sawyer Fuller, was also part of the Harvard University team that first created RoboBee. That flying robot receives its power via a wire attached to an external power source, as an onboard battery would simply be too heavy to allow the tiny craft to fly. Instead of a wire or a battery, RoboFly is powered by a laser. That laser shines on a photovoltaic cell, which is mounted on top of the robot. On its own, that cell converts the laser light to just seven volts of electricity, so a built-in circuit boosts that to the 240 volts needed to flap the wings. That circuit also contains a microcontroller, which tells the robot when and how to flap its wings -- on RoboBee, that sort of "thinking" is handled via a tether-linked external controller. The robot can be seen in action here.
Businesses

Boston Dynamics' SpotMini Robot Dog Will Go On Sale Next Year (cnet.com) 61

Almost two years ago, Boston Dynamics unveiled their SpotMini robot to the world. It's a four-legged machine that can open doors and power through disturbances. CNET reports that the SpotMini will go on sale next year "for companies that want a mechanical quadruped to get to places a wheeled device can't reach." From the report: Boston Dynamics has 10 SpotMini prototypes now and will work with manufacturing partners to build 100 this year, company co-founder and President Marc Raibert said at a TechCrunch robotics conference Friday. "That's a prelude to getting into a higher rate of production" in anticipation of sales next year, he said.

Raibert didn't reveal price plans, but said the SpotMini robots could be useful for security patrols or for helping construction companies keep tabs on what's happening at building sites. SpotMini can be customized with attachments and extra software for particular jobs, he said. Eventually, though, the company hopes to sell it for use in people's homes.

Robotics

The Smithsonian's New Tour Guide Is a Robot (cnet.com) 49

Last week, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, revealed its new employee -- an interactive robot named Pepper. According to Softbank, the company that created the 4-foot-tall humanoid robot, Pepper will help guide museum visitors through the museum and provide insight on different exhibits. CNET reports: Pepper is programmed to answer commonly asked questions and tell stories. The robot can react and make gestures, and is equipped with an interactive touch screen. To entertain museum visitors, Pepper often dances and poses for selfies, which will undoubtably attract a crowd. In each of the different museum branches, the Pepper robots perform different docent duties. For example, at the National Museum of African Art, Pepper can translate phrases in the Kiswahili (Swahili) language. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Pepper robots guide visitors to the Rosa Parks VR experience. Pepper robots are also programmed to teach visiting students coding and software engineering in the Smithsonian's teen educational space ARTLAB+.
Robotics

The Auto Plants of the Future May Have a Surprisingly Human Touch (reuters.com) 38

Carmakers have big plans for their next generation of factories: smarter designs, artificial intelligence and collaborative robots building a wide range of vehicles on the same line. From a report: The plants will also feature a component they say is the secret ingredient to flexible manufacturing: humans. SAIC-GM's factory in Shanghai, which opened in 2016, is one of the world's most advanced auto plants, assembling Buick minivans and Cadillac sedans and SUVs, including the CT-6 plug-in hybrid for U.S. consumers. GM's Shanghai plant is expected to eventually produce new electric vehicles, primarily for the Chinese market, executives have said. The plant, which GM operates with Chinese partner SAIC Motor Corp Ltd, feels almost like a scene from a Star Wars film, with battalions of machines quietly working in self-directed harmony. Collaborative robots, or "cobots," painted matte green and unrestrained by the steel cages that surround their larger industrial cousins, are being programmed to work alongside humans on the line. One unusual operation advanced models now handle is installing gears in transmissions.
Robotics

Robot-Launched Weather Balloons in Alaska Hasten Demise of Remote Stations (sciencemag.org) 52

The National Weather Service is choosing automated launchers over human employees to deploy weather balloons in Alaska. From a report: Last Thursday, just before 3 p.m., things began stirring inside the truck-size box that sat among melting piles of snow at the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska. Inside, software ran checks on instruments to measure atmospheric temperature, humidity, and pressure; a tray slid into place; and a nozzle began filling a large balloon with gas. Finally, the roof of the box yawned open and a weather balloon took off into the sunny afternoon, instruments dangling. The entire launch was triggered with the touch of a button, 5 kilometers away at an office of the National Weather Service (NWS).

The flight was smooth, just one of hundreds of twice-daily balloon launches around the world that radio back crucial data for weather forecasts. But most of those balloons are launched by people; the robotic launchers, which are rolling out across Alaska, are proving to be controversial. NWS says the autolaunchers will save money and free up staff to work on more pressing matters. But representatives of the employee union question their reliability, and say they will hasten the end of Alaska's remote weather offices, where forecasting duties and hours have already been slashed. "The autolauncher is just another nail in their coffin," says Kimberly Vaughan, a union steward in Juneau.

Once deployed across the state, the $1.2 million machines, built by Finnish company Vaisala, will save about 8 hours of forecaster time a day -- and about $1 million a year at NWS, Susan Buchanan, an NWS spokesperson says.

Businesses

Appliance Companies Are Lobbying To Protect Their DRM-Fueled Repair Monopolies (vice.com) 143

Electronics companies Dyson, LG, and Wahl are fighting right-to-repair legislation, Motherboard reported Wednesday, citing letters it has obtained. From a report: The manufacturers of your appliances do not want you to be able to fix them yourself. Last week, at least three major appliance manufacturers -- Dyson, LG, and Wahl -- sent letters to Illinois lawmakers opposing "fair repair" legislation in that state. The letters were written with the help of a trade group called the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM). All three letters are similar but include slightly different wording and examples in parts. The letters ask lawmakers to "withdraw" a bill that would protect and expand the ability for consumers and independent repair professionals to repair everything from iPhones to robot vacuums, electric shavers, toasters, and tractors. Here are links to the Wahl, Dyson, and LG letters.
Robotics

A Study Finds Half of Jobs Are Vulnerable To Automation (economist.com) 201

The Economist reports of a new working paper by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that assesses the automatability of each task within a given job, based on a survey of skills in 2015. "Overall, the study finds that 14% of jobs across 32 countries are highly vulnerable, defined as having at least a 70% chance of automation," reports Economist. "A further 32% were slightly less imperiled, with a probability between 50% and 70%. At current employment rates, that puts 210 million jobs at risk across the 32 countries in the study." From the report: The pain will not be shared evenly. The study finds large variation across countries: jobs in Slovakia are twice as vulnerable as those in Norway. In general, workers in rich countries appear less at risk than those in middle-income ones. But wide gaps exist even between countries of similar wealth. Differences in organizational structure and industry mix both play a role, but the former matters more. In South Korea, for example, 30% of jobs are in manufacturing, compared with 22% in Canada. Nonetheless, on average, Korean jobs are harder to automate than Canadian ones are. This may be because Korean employers have found better ways to combine, in the same job, and without reducing productivity, both routine tasks and social and creative ones, which computers or robots cannot do. A gloomier explanation would be "survivor bias": the jobs that remain in Korea appear harder to automate only because Korean firms have already handed most of the easily automatable jobs to machines.
Businesses

Amazon Has a Top-Secret Plan to Build Home Robots (bloomberg.com) 91

After making smart speakers a household product (at least to some), Amazon seems to have found its next big consumer product: robots. Amazon is building smart robots that are equipped with cameras that let them drive around homes, Bloomberg reported Monday. These robots could launch as soon as next year. From the report: Codenamed "Vesta," after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family, the project is overseen by Gregg Zehr, who runs Amazon's Lab126 hardware research and development division based in Sunnyvale, California. Lab126 is responsible for Amazon devices such as the Echo speakers, Fire TV set-top-boxes, Fire tablets and the ill-fated Fire Phone.

The Vesta project originated a few years ago, but this year Amazon began to aggressively ramp up hiring. There are dozens of listings on the Lab 126 Jobs page for openings like "Software Engineer, Robotics" and "Principle Sensors Engineer." People briefed on the plan say the company hopes to begin seeding the robots in employees' homes by the end of this year, and potentially with consumers as early as 2019, though the timeline could change, and Amazon hardware projects are sometimes killed during gestation.

Robotics

Apple Has a New iPhone Recycling Robot Named 'Daisy' (techcrunch.com) 39

Apple has unveiled a new robot called Daisy that's designed to recycle nine different versions of the iPhone. The new robot is an update to Liam, the recycling robot the company announced back in 2016. TechCrunch reports: Daisy was developed in-house by Apple engineers, using some of Liam's parts -- a recycling of sorts. The industrial robot is able to disassemble nine different versions of the iPhone, sorting all of their reusable components in the process. In all, Daisy is capable of taking apart a full 200 iPhones in a given hour, proving a solid alternative to traditional methods that can destroy valuable components in the process. Along with Daisy, Apple's also using the occasion to announce GiveBack, an addition to its recycling program. For every device customers turn in or trade from now until April 30, the company will make a donation to Conservation International, a Virginia-based environmental nonprofit. Eligible devices will still qualify for an in-store or gift card credit.
Robotics

Scientists Create Robots That Can Assemble IKEA Furniture For You (sciencemag.org) 125

sciencehabit shares a report from Science Magazine: Although artificial intelligence systems may be able to beat humans at board games, we still have the upper hand when it comes to complicated manual tasks. But now, scientists have created robots that can do something even most humans struggle with: assemble an IKEA chair. Putting together a chair requires a combination of complex movements that, in turn, depends on such skills as vision, limb coordination, and the ability to control force. Until now, that was too much to ask of even a sophisticated robot. But researchers have finally broken the dexterity barrier by combining commercially available hardware, including 3D cameras and force sensors, to build two chair-building bots. To construct their IKEA masterpiece, the robots first took pictures to identify each part of the chair. An algorithm planned the motions the robots needed to manipulate the objects without causing any collisions; two robotic arms then performed those actions in concert. Feedback from force sensors also helped: When the robot needed to insert a pin into a hole, for example, it would slide the pin over the surface until it felt a change in force. The robots were able to put together the chair in a little over 20 minutes, which includes the 11 minutes and 21 seconds of planning time and 8 minutes and 55 seconds of actual assembly. The findings have been reported today in Science Robotics.
Businesses

Robots Ride To the Rescue Where Workers Can't Be Found (nytimes.com) 82

Fast-growing economies in Eastern Europe have led to severe labor shortages, so companies are calling in the machines [Editor's note: the link may be paywalled]. From a report: In many major economies, companies are experimenting with replacing factory workers, truck drivers and even lawyers with artificial intelligence, raising the specter of a mass displacement of jobs. But in Eastern Europe, robots are being enlisted as the solution for a shortage of workers. Often they are helping to create new types of jobs as businesses in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland try to stay agile and competitive. Growth in these countries, which became low-cost manufacturing hubs for Europe after the fall of Communism, has averaged 5 percent in recent years, buoyed by the global recovery.

Few are riding higher than the Czech Republic, where plants roll out cars for the likes of Toyota and consumer electronics for Dell, while smaller companies produce specialty goods to sell around the world. A roaring economy has slashed the jobless rate to just 2.4 percent, the lowest in the European Union. The dearth of manpower, however, has limited the ability of Czech companies to expand. Nearly a third of them have started to turn away orders, according to the Czech Confederation of Industry, a trade group.

Robotics

Europe Divided Over Robot 'Personhood' (politico.eu) 246

Politico Europe has an interesting piece which looks at the high-stakes debate between European lawmakers, legal experts and manufacturers over who should bear the ultimate responsibility for the actions by a machine: the machine itself or the humans who made them?. Two excerpts from the piece: The battle goes back to a paragraph of text, buried deep in a European Parliament report from early 2017, which suggests that self-learning robots could be granted "electronic personalities." Such a status could allow robots to be insured individually and be held liable for damages if they go rogue and start hurting people or damaging property.

Those pushing for such a legal change, including some manufacturers and their affiliates, say the proposal is common sense. Legal personhood would not make robots virtual people who can get married and benefit from human rights, they say; it would merely put them on par with corporations, which already have status as "legal persons," and are treated as such by courts around the world.

The Military

Robots Replace Soldiers In First of Its Kind Obstacle-Breaching Exercise (military.com) 23

Long-time Slashdot reader cold fjord writes: U.S. and British troops have completed a first-of-its-kind exercise using robots for breaching a complex anti-tank/anti-personnel obstacle as part of what was titled the "Robotic Complex Breach Concept demonstration" at the Grafenwoehr training area in Germany. The exercise included a number of robotic systems, including remotely controlled British Army Terrier engineering vehicles (five cameras, including thermal imaging), UAVs for reconnaissance and chemical agent detection, and the M58 Wolf under remote control and used to provide smoke screens...

British Warrant Officer Robert Kemp stated that breaching enemy obstacles is one of the most dangerous tasks on a battlefield, and that, "Any breach like this will have enemy weapons trained in on the area... Roboticizing breach operations takes away the risk of life and makes clearing enemy obstacles much safer." U.S. Army officer 1st Lt. Felix Derosin said, "As an engineer, this means a lot to me... The casualty rate for a breach is expected to be 50 percent. Being able to take our guys away from that, and have some robots go in there, is a very positive thing for us. In the future, this can save engineers' lives."

The engineer added later that "Being able to see it, eyes on, shows me what the future is going to be like, and it's pretty good."
Robotics

Tesla Relied On Too Many Robots To Build the Model 3, Elon Musk Says (theverge.com) 103

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Elon Musk says Tesla relied on too many robots to build the Model 3, which is partly to blame for the delays in manufacturing the crucial mass-market electric car. In an interview with CBS Good Morning, Musk agreed with Tesla's critics that there was over-reliance on automation and too few human assembly line workers building the Model 3. Earlier this month, Tesla announced that it had officially missed its goal of making 2,500 Model 3 vehicles a week by the end of the first financial quarter of this year. It will start the second quarter making just 2,000 Model 3s per week, but the company says it still believes it can get to a rate of 5,000 Model 3s per week at the midway point of 2018. Previously, Tesla has blamed bottlenecks in the production of the Model 3's batteries at the company's Gigafactory for the delays. But in a wide-ranging (and largely positive) interview with CBS's Gayle King, Musk also admits it was Tesla's over-reliance on robots in the production. Musk then said the company needs more people working in the factory and that automation slowed the Model 3 production process. He alluded to a "crazy, complex network of conveyor belts" the company had previously used and said the company eliminated it after it became clear it wasn't working.

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