AI Talk: Robots in the news

Feb. 17, 2020 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD

This week’s AI Talk…

Out of sheer coincidence, I ran across a number of articles related to the use of robots in a variety of settings. It is interesting to see the steady progression in their usage!

Robot Comedy

I saw an intriguing reference in my perennial source for AI stories, MIT Technology Review, to a standup comedy routine by a robot!  Check out this article in IEEE Spectrum—the quintessential technical journal for electrical engineers.  So, what’s the story here? Why is this article in a nerdy rag? Well, the article was written by Professor Naomi Fitter, who is a professor in robotics and she moonlights as a standup comedian! She decided to put both her areas of expertise to use by building a robot that does standup comedy. You can read all about the journey that resulted in a robot that truly does standup comedy in her article. Check out the robot performances in the YouTube videos linked to the article. Turns out, she needed to research how to deliver jokes, how long to pause for applause, how to detect applause, the timing of the joke and how to synthesize the voice so it sounded really robotic and funny (and not like Siri or Alexa). The one thing the robotic comedian did not do  was write its own jokes. Truly impressive and entertaining!

Robot Delivery

A driverless car has won exemption from federal safety requirements  for the very first time. The car company that won that exemption is called Nuro and was started by two ex-Google engineers. What were the safety regulations that were waived? How about steering wheels, pedals, side view mirrors? Yes, these are totally unnecessary if a human driver is not in the equation. This car is going to show up on roads with a max speed of 25 miles per hour, it will be roughly half the size of a regular car and one of its main purposes will be carrying loads of groceries in a climate-controlled cargo bay. It is small enough and slow enough  not to be a real threat on the roads and bicyclists and cars can easily pass them as they plod around carrying your groceries! How is this company going to make money? That remains to be seen.

Robot Inventory

I was shopping at our local Walmart and  was surprised to see a robot casually strolling the aisles! When I asked a Walmart employee what the robot was actually tasked to do, he told me it goes aisle by aisle figuring which items are sold out and need to be replaced. Turns out, there was a news story related to this rollout just a few weeks ago. The robots are from a firm called Bosso Nova Robotics, which got its start in our backyard, Pittsburgh. Their inventory scanning robot is going to 1,000 Walmart stores. Given that I espied one in Morgantown—a small town with a big University—I guess it must be true! Check out what Bosso Nova robot can do here. In addition to inventory scanning, it figures out if the pricing is right, if the items stacked properly, etc. This is a good role for robot—automating a fairly monotonous task. This also implies that Walmart has probably  successfully eliminated a number of routine tasks for its employees and made them more efficient.

Robot Surgery

Last month, the Journal of American Medical Association published a study which looked at the adoption of robotic surgery for common surgical procedures. They looked at a cohort of about 170,000 patients in 73 hospitals to examine the role of robotic surgery. In the six years they studied, from 2012 to 2018, the percentage of surgeries that involved robotics increased from 1.5 percent to 15.1 percent! They also noticed a decrease in minimally invasive traditional laparoscopic surgery during the same period. The authors, from of University of Michigan, did raise a cautionary note: Don’t use the more invasive surgery—even when aided by automation—if a less invasive procedure is available, unless there is evidence to support the robot-assisted procedure.

I am always looking for feedback and if you would like me to cover a story, please let me know. “See something, say something”! Leave me a comment below or ask a question on my blogger profile page.

V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is Director of Research for 3M M*Modal and is an AI Evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and Computer Science research.