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The collaborative hand

Rich Walker-Shadow-2019-04-03.jpgThe futurist Anders Sandberg has often observed that we call it "artificial intelligence" only as long as it doesn't work; after that it's simply "automation". This week, Rich Walker, the managing director of Shadow Robot, said the same thing about robotics. No one calls a self-driving car or a washing machine a robot, for example. Then again, a friend does indeed call the automated tea maker that reliably wakes up every morning before he does "the robot", which suggests we only call things "robots" when we can mock their limitations.

Walker's larger point was robotics, like AI, suffers from confusion between the things people think it can do and the things it can actually do. The gap in AI is so large, that effectively the term now has two meanings, a technological one revolving around the traditional definition of AI, and a political one, which includes the many emerging new technologies - machine learning, computer vision, and so on - that we need to grapple with.

When, last year, we found that Shadow Robot was collaborating on research into care robots it seemed time for a revisit: the band of volunteers I met in 1997 and the tiny business it had grown into in 2009 had clearly reached a new level.

Social care is just one of many areas Shadow is exploring; others include agritech and manufacturing. "Lots are either depending on other pieces of technology that are not ready or available yet or dependent on economics that are not working in our favor yet," Walker says. Social care is an example of the latter; using robots outside of production lines in manufacturing is an example of the former. "It's still effectively a machine vision problem." That is, machine vision is not accurate enough with high enough reliability. A 99.9% level of accuracy means a failure per shift in a car manufacturing facility.

Thumbnail image for R-shadow-walker.jpgGetting to Shadow Robot's present state involved narrowing down the dream founder Richard Greenhill conceived after reading a 1980s computer programming manual: to build a robot that could bring him a cup of tea. The project, then struggling to be taken seriously as it had no funding and Greenhill had no relevant degrees, built the first robot outside Japan that could stand upright and take a step; the Science Museum included it in its 2017 robot exhibition.

Greenhill himself began the winnowing process, focusing on developing a physical robot that could function in human spaces rather than AI and computer vision, reasoning that there were many others who would do that. Greenhill recognized the importance of the hand, but it was Walker who recognized its commercial potential: "To engage with real-world, human-scale tasks you need hands."

The result, Walker says, is, "We build the best robot hand in the world." And, he adds, because several employees have worked on all the hands Shadow has ever built, "We understand all the compromises we've made in the designs, why they're there, and how they could be changed. If someone asks for an extra thumb, we can say why it's difficult but how we could do it."

Meanwhile, the world around Shadow has changed to include specialists in everything else. Computer vision, for example: "It's outside of the set of things we think we should be good at doing, so we want others to do it who are passionate about it," Walker says. "I have no interest in building robot arms, for example. Lots of people do that." And anyway, "It's incredibly hard to do it better than Universal Robots" - which itself became the nucleus of a world-class robotics cluster in the small Danish city of Odense.

Specialization may be the clearest sign that robotics is growing up. Shadow's current model, mounted on a UR arm, sports fingertips developed by SynTouch. With SynTouch and HaptX, Shadow collaborated to create a remote teleoperation system using HaptX gloves in San Francisco to control a robot hand in London following instructions from a businessman in Japan. The reason sounds briefly weird: All Nippon Airways is seeking new markets by moving into avatars and telepresence. It sounds less weird when Walker says ANA first thought of teleportation...and then concluded that telepresence might be more realistic.

Shadow's complement of employees is nearing 40, and they've moved from the undifferentiated north London house they'd worked in since the 1990s, dictated, Walker says, by buying a new milling machine. Getting the previous one in, circa 2007, required taking out the front window and the stairs and building a crane. Walker's increasing business focus reflects the fact that the company's customers are now as often commercial companies as the academic and research institutions that used to form their entire clientele.

For the future, "We want to improve tactile sensing," Walker says. "Touch is really hard to get robots to do well." One aspect they're particularly interested in for teleoperation is understanding intent: when grasping something, does the controlling human want to pinch, twist, hold, or twist it? At the moment, to answer that he imagines "the robot equivalent" of Clippy that asks, "It looks like you're trying to twist the wire. Do you mean to roll it or twist it?" Or even: "It looks like you're trying to defuse a bomb. Do you want to cut the red wire or the black wire?" Well, do ya, punk?

Illustrations: Rich Walker, showing off the latest model, which includes fingertips from HaptX and a robot arm from Universal Robotics; the original humanoid biped, on display at the Science Museum.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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