Unleashing the Robot Revolution at NEST 2016

Yuto Nakanishi of Schaft presents two bipedal robots

Heavy-duty droids took to the stage at the New Economy Summit (NEST) 2016 in Tokyo last week when a Japanese startup took the wraps off its latest robot.

Japanese startup Schaft, part of the X lab owned by Google parent Alphabet, presented two bipedal droids designed to help carry heavy objects, clean up and navigate uneven terrain. The machines casually strolled around Schaft presenter Yuto Nakanishi, who said they can carry loads of up to 60 kilograms and can tackle rocks, stairs and snow.

Nakanishi said the robots are designed to be low-cost, low-power helpers and will be used in various applications. In a promotional video, the robot can be seen vacuuming a set of steps, with its feet fitted with suction units and spinning brushes.

The presentation was an unusual move given Google’s secrecy about its acquisitions of robotics companies in recent years. Schaft shot to fame when it was acquired by the search giant in 2013 and excelled in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, aimed at evolving humanoid machines that can operate in disaster zones. Little had been heard from it since then.

Andy Rubin explains platform cycles

The automatons were shown off during a keynote presentation by Andy Rubin, a former Google executive most known for overseeing the development of the Android operating system. Now CEO of venture capital and engineering firm Playground Global, Rubin described how computing platforms have tended to change every 10 to 12 years and said that the platform that will succeed mobile devices is artificial intelligence (AI).

“AI could be bigger than mobile and Internet,” said Rubin. “If it’s really big, we’re talking about the next industrial revolution. It’s bigger than computing, and it’ll change the world in really, really significant ways.”

Limiting AI to the Internet cloud keeps it in a virtual world, but robots can embody AI in the real world, he said, pointing to examples such as self-driving cars and a bipedal robot developed by Boston Dynamics. He also discussed the ability of AI architectures such as neural networks to train themselves using data, making computer engineers less programmers and more coaches for robots and AI systems.

“I believe that technology can make the world a better place,” said Rubin. “That’s what drives me every day. It gives me the courage to try these crazy things.”

Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics

Rubin’s thoughts were echoed in an earlier session at NEST 2016 on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones and sometimes described as flying robots. Chris Anderson, CEO of drone maker 3D Robotics, talked about the ongoing explosion in UAVs as a movement to put sensors in the sky that have the range of satellites and the resolution of Google Street View mobile cameras. 3D Robotics’ Solo quadrotor drone can both automatically fly and control the position of a camera under its hull for optimum high-definition shots.

“I think we have the opportunity to realize the potential of the Internet in a bigger way than we’ve ever seen before,” said Anderson. “Drones are the Internet of Things – they extend the Internet’s intelligence into the devices.”

Anderson referred to how drones can help improve productivity and efficiency in applications such as planning soil use at a construction site, monitoring irrigation in agriculture and search and rescue operations.

Professor Kenzo Nonami of Chiba University (left)
Professor Kenzo Nonami of Chiba University (left) with fellow panelists Mayor Toshihito Kumagai (center) and Chris Anderson (right)

He praised a pilot project outlined by fellow panelist Toshihito Kumagai, mayor of the city of Chiba, to allow drones to deliver goods to residents of 46-story condominiums planned for the Makuhari area of Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo.

“By 2050, drones will be doing all kinds of things to help people, such as bringing them coffee, cleaning floors and ceilings,” said Chiba University engineering professor Kenzo Nonami, who is president of Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory, one of Japan’s largest makers of drones. “It’s like the advent of the Internet — people were skeptical of it at first but 20 years later the world has changed. With drones, we’re about to change the world.”

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