Sunday, January 09, 2005

Hans Moravec in SciAm

December 20, 2004

You, Robot

He says humans will download their minds into computers one day. With a new robotics firm, Hans Moravec begins the journey from warehouse drones to robo sapiens

By Chip Walter

When word got around that Hans Moravec had founded an honest-to-goodness robotics firm, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Wasn't this the same Carnegie Mellon University scientist who had predicted that we would someday routinely download our minds into robots? And that exponential advances in computing power would cause the human race to invent itself out of a job as robots supplanted us as the planet's most adept and adaptive species? Somehow, creating a company seemed ... uncharacteristically pragmatic.

But Moravec doesn't see it that way. He says he didn't start Seegrid Corporation because he was backing off his predictions. He founded the company because he was planning to help fulfill them. "It was time," he says, slowly rubbing his hand across his bristle-short hair. "The computing power is here."

The 56-year-old Moravec should know. Born in Kautzen, Austria, and raised in Montreal, he has been pushing the envelope on robotics theory and experimentation for the past 35 years, first as the graduate student at Stanford University who created the "Stanford Cart," the first mobile robot capable of seeing and autonomously navigating the world around it (albeit very slowly), and later as a central force in Car-negie Mellon's vaunted Robotics Institute. His iconoclastic theories and inventive work in machine vision have both shocked his colleagues and jump-started research; Seegrid is just the next logical step.

Moravec pulls an image up onto one of the two massive monitors that sit side by side on his desk, like great unblinking eyes. It's six o'clock in the evening, but an inveterate night owl, he's just starting his "day." "I have been drawing these graphs for years about what will be possible," he comments. His mouse roams along dots and images that plot and compare the processing power of old top-of-the-line computers with their biological equivalents. There is the ENIAC, for example, that in 1946 possessed the processing capacity of a bacterium and then a 1990 model IBM PS/2 90 that once harnessed the digital horsepower of a worm. Only recently have desktop computers arrived that can deliver the raw processing muscle of a spider or a guppy (about one billion instructions per second). "At guppy-level intelligence," he explains, "I thought we could manage 3-D mapping and create a robot that could get around pretty well without any special preparation of its environment."

But no one was creating that robot, so in the late 1990s Moravec says he began to grow "very antsy" about getting one built. In 1998 he wrote an ambitious grant proposal that outlined software for a robotic vision system. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency quickly funded the proposal, and three and a half years and $970,000 later, with PCs just reaching guppy smarts, a working demonstration was complete.

"It proved the principle," Moravec says. "We really could map with stereo vision, if we did things just right." But doing things just right required more than prototype software. Robotic evolution, he adds, "has to be driven forward by a lot of trial and error, and the only way to get enough is if you have an industry where one company is trying to outdo another." To help things along, he and Pittsburgh physician and entrepreneur Scott Friedman founded Seegrid in 2003. Their focus: the unglamorous but potentially huge "product handling" market.

Industrial robots already flourish in tightly constrained environments such as assembly lines. Where they fail is in locations loaded with unpredictability. So Seegrid concentrated on creating vision systems that enable simple machines to move supplies around warehouses without any human direction.

Not exactly the stuff of science fiction, Moravec agrees, and a long way from superintelligent robots, but he says you have to start somewhere. Nearly everything sold has to be warehoused at some point, and at some point it also has to be rerouted and shipped. Right now human workers move millions of tons of supplies and products using dollies, pallet jacks and forklifts. Seegrid's first prototype devices automate that work, turning wheeled carts into seeing-eye machines that can be loaded and then walked through various routes to teach them how to navigate on their own. The technology is built on Moravec's bedrock belief that if robots are going to succeed, the world cannot be adapted to them; they have to adapt to the world, just like the rest of us.

Other approaches can guide robots, but they typically rely on costly, precision hardware such as laser range finders or on extravagant arrangements that prewire and preprogram the machines to move through controlled spaces. Seegrid's system uses off-the-shelf CCD cameras and simple sonar and infrared sensors. Although these components gather imprecise information, the software compensates. It statistically compares the gathered data to develop a clean, accurate 3-D map. "If the same information keeps coming up, then the program decides that it's probably really there," Moravec explains. The robot then knows to stop or roll around it. This approach is how you might make your way through a dark room with a flashlight, in which you slowly build up a mental picture of what is around.

Creating warehouse drones as a first step toward the startling robotic world Moravec foresees might seem an unlikely concession to reality. But those who know Moravec say it is no surprise: he is an unusual mix of whimsy, wild vision and rigorous pragmatism. He has been known to be so lost in thought during his daily walks to his office that he bumps into mailboxes, yet none of that eccentricity has tarnished his reputation as a first-rate engineer and programmer.

"Some of Hans's ideas are pretty outrageous," admits Raj Reddy, who as director of the Robotics Institute brought Moravec to Carnegie Mellon in 1980, "but his work has always been very practical." Seegrid co-founder Friedman says it is exactly Moravec's vision and dogged persistence that separates him from the pack: "He's a genius, and he works hard."

The same themes run through his view of the future of robotics. Evolution moves in tiny steps, Moravec notes, but accomplishes amazing things. Machine evolution will do the same as it incrementally nudges robots from their clumsy beginnings to the heights of human-level intelligence and mobility. "We don't need a lot of Einsteins to do this; we need a lot of engineers working diligently to make little improvements and then test them out in the marketplace," Moravec insists. And that, he says, will ultimately lead to robots becoming vastly more intelligent and adaptable than we are.

That seems to leave us only one destination: the endangered species list. "Something like 99 percent of all species go extinct," Moravec observes. Why, he asks, should we be any different? Not that he sees us being destroyed by what he calls our "mind children" exactly. "It's not going to be like Terminator," he reassures. But children do often exceed the accomplishments of their parents. And in our evolutionary dotage, he is sure they will take good care of us, as parents' children often do. "They will create the perfect welfare state," he says.

At least, we hope so.

Toyota and robots

Toyota Uses Robots to Solve Labor Shortage ProblemsPosted on Friday, January 07 @ 00:38:13 CST Robotics

Toyota Motor will introduce robots which can work as well or better than humans at all 12 of its factories in Japan to cut costs and deal with a looming labour shortage as the country ages, a report said on Thursday.

The robots would be able to carry out multiple tasks simultaneously with their two arms, achieving efficiency unseen in human workers and matching the cheap wages of Chinese labourers, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun said.

Japan's top automaker currently uses 3 000 to 4 000 less advanced robots at its domestic factories but their use has been confined mostly to welding, painting and other potentially hazardous tasks, the economic daily said.

The new robots would also be used in finishing work, such as installation of seats and car interior fixtures, that have been too complex for conventional robots up to now, the daily said.

Toyota plans to become the first in the automobile industry to use the advanced robots in all production processes in the future, it said without giving the timeframe.

"We aim to reduce production costs to the levels in China," the daily quoted an unnamed company official as saying.

Toyota also took into account the looming labour shortage in Japan due to a declining birthrate, the report said.

Japan's population is forecast to peak by 2006 with the average number of children a woman has during her lifetime standing at a post-World War II low of 1.29, according to the latest government data.

Japan has so far rejected calls to open up to large numbers of unskilled immigrants, fearing the effects on the country's social framework.

Toyota has been increasingly turning to robot development and plans to welcome visitors to its pavillion at the World Expo in Japan in March with humanoid robots jamming in a brass ensemble and performing hip-hop.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Robotics and Outsourcing

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Three years ago, Epson Portland laid off 850 employees -- three-quarters of its work force -- as printer assembly moved to Asia. The Hillsboro company put its newest building up for sale, succumbing to the powerful riptide carrying manufacturing jobs to countries with cheap labor.

Epson appeared poised to vanish from Oregon like other big Japanese manufacturers. Its payroll plunged from 2,400 in 1998, when the state's manufacturing employment peaked, to 250.

But the factory is back, defying outsourcing's centrifugal force. Its payroll has ballooned to 600. It churns out record numbers of printer cartridges. Productivity is up. Defects are down. The factory spits out five times as many cartridges per worker as a sister plant in China.

"The trend to outsource to other countries is coming under question now," says Epson Portland President Dave Graham, a manufacturing veteran who led the comeback. "Companies are realizing that there are hidden costs."

Epson's success story shows that manufacturing needn't always take a one-way trip offshore. While consultants and business professors largely dismiss Epson's turnaround as an anomaly, the plant is not alone. Factories are switching to "lean" manufacturing, the art of making products efficiently, as global competition intensifies.

To Mike Doyle, Oregon Economic and Community Development Department international trade manager, Epson's rebound shows that "the bus marked Southeast Asia" won't necessarily mow down everything in its path. "If you don't see those headlights, that bus is going to hit you," Doyle says. "But you don't have to step on the bus. You can step to the side and still get where you're going, using a different strategy."

As the branch of a Japanese company, Epson Portland was an outsourcing venture when it opened in 1986. The parent firm, Seiko Epson Corp., is a giant that makes everything from watches to computer chips.

The Hillsboro plant, which led a wave of Japanese companies into Oregon, grew into a manufacturing mainstay. But in spring 2001, Seiko Epson moved labor-intensive printer manufacturing from Oregon to Indonesia and China.

Graham, 54, came from the financial side of the operation as Epson Portland's former comptroller. A mechanical engineer, he had spent years troubleshooting factories for Paccar, maker of Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks. He looked on the bright side, saying Epson's layoffs left him with his best employees. He told them the truth: If the plant didn't astronomically improve, they weren't going to be around.

"My mantra was, `If you guys want a future,"' Graham says, "`you're going to have to create it yourselves."'

The workers didn't need convincing, he says. They were hungry for direction.

Graham knew they would have to cut costs, reduce defects, master automation and boost productivity. The assembly-line workers, who make an average of $15 an hour, including benefits, would have to take all these steps at once to compete with Chinese workers, who earn one-sixth as much.

They would survive by boosting the number of cartridges made per worker, ultimately doubling the factory's production. "More throughput -- that's how we compete with the developing countries," Graham says. "I needed to teach the workers that if a line goes down, it changes from adding to your bank account to depleting it. Getting the line back up and running should be a very high priority."

The other big challenge was quality. In 2001, defects forced the plant to scrap 12,000 of every 1 million cartridges produced. Under Graham, the defect rate plunged to 250 per 1 million, astonishing Seiko Epson managers. He credits the increased technical prowess of his workers.

Graham constantly challenges his employees to devise improvements. He shares business results with his workers, who come from about 30 countries. "That way," he says, "I've got 600 more brains working on the same problem."

Case in point: Workers used to pack cartridges into boxes as they came off the assembly line, then remove and inspect them. Two workers automated the counting and sorting process. The $40,000 innovation saves more than $500,000 a year in labor costs.

Graham automated the plant and made it more efficient. Robotic arms emerge from injection-molding machines to place plastic parts in annealing ovens. Pairs of injection machines now share one oven, saving energy and space.

Epson workers traded visits and ideas with other factories, such as a Tillamook Cheese plant. They studied Toyota's famed manufacturing culture.

Hillsboro managers have grown closer to their parent company. Graham traveled repeatedly to Seiko Epson headquarters in Suwa, Japan. "He did a lot of relationship-building," says David Lawrence, Hillsboro deputy city manager. Lawrence, who visited Suwa, saw direct, comfortable communication between the Japanese and the manager of their only U.S. plant.

As a result, the Hillsboro plant more closely resembles a typical Seiko Epson factory.

Instead of expanding their offices to fill space in a large room vacated by printer makers, office workers follow a more Japanese approach, grouping cubicles at one end. Graham wants Seiko Epson executives to see that the 180,000-square-foot factory has room for more work. He also wants the Japanese managers to feel at home. He prominently displays framed photographs of the Japanese with their American colleagues.

Graham says Epson and other companies that outsource abroad encounter unexpected costs moving raw materials around. Firms can save money and time, he says, by manufacturing close to markets.

Global companies make those calculations constantly, says John Mosier, director of worldwide operations for material and logistics at FEI Co. The maker of nanotechnology tools distributes manufacturing among its plants at Hillsboro headquarters and in Massachusetts, Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

Tariffs, currency fluctuations, freight charges and other costs can wipe out labor savings abroad, Mosier says. "Those considerations are always in play," he adds. "We look at total delivered cost."

Seiko Epson managers have asked Graham to write a case study explaining how the factory turned itself around. But Graham feels pressure to improve further. Sister plants in England, Mexico, China and Japan are already taking pages from Hillsboro's book, learning to share ovens between injection machines, for example.

"It never lets up," Graham says. "Continuous improvement is our constant mantra, because everyone else is trying to do the same thing, whatever the country."

Dec. 27, 2004


(Richard Read covers international affairs for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at richread@aol.com.)