Observing MLK Day, I followed in the footsteps of Katherine Johnson at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Her memory still looms large over the Mission Control room that launched Apollo 11’s successful lunar landing fifty years ago. This historic milestone could not have been achieved without the mathematical genius of the African-American pioneer and her team of human computers. Today, their creative spirit is reflected in the diverse scientific community collaborating in managing the International Space Station and its network of robots orbiting the Earth.
In the spirit of great scientific partnerships, I recalled meeting Dr. Jeremy Fishel, founder of Tangible Research at CES earlier this month. Tangible Research is one of three institutions involved in developing a haptic-controlled humanoid gripping system called Tactile Telerobot. Interviewing him in his packed booth on the floor of Eureka Park, he introduced me to his colleagues from the Shadow Robot Company and HaptX. Dr. Fishel pointed out, “Shadow Robot Company provides expertise and products for dexterous robotic hands, Tangible Research provides expertise on tactile sensing and haptics, and HaptX provides expertise and products for the haptic gloves. The complete system also includes hardware from SynTouch (biomimetic tactile sensors) and Universal Robots (robot arms).” He excitedly referred to the triumvirate as the Converge Robotics Group (CRG).
Together with Rich Walker of Shadow, Dr. Fishel received sponsorship from All Nippon Airways (ANA Holdings) as a stepping stone to an eventual Mars landing. In the words of Kevin Kajitani of ANA’s Avatar Division, “We are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible with these advanced Avatar systems and through telerobotics in general. In addition to sponsoring the $10M ANA Avatar XPRIZE, we’ve approached our three partner companies to seek solutions that will allow us to develop a high performance, intuitive, general-purpose Avatar hand. We believe that this technology will be key in helping humanity connect across vast distances.” ANA’s June press release further boasted, “The teleoperation and the telepresence system will feature the first robotic hand to successfully transmit touch sensations. The innovative technology has been called the ‘Holy Grail of robotics’ for its potential to revolutionize the industry, making the upcoming public test a true milestone for ANA’s ventures in robotics.” CRG’s technology already displays an “unprecedented precision remote-control” with robotic fingers typing on a keyboard 5,000 miles away from its human operators. Walker predicts that Telerobot eventually will be utilized in operating the most dangerous human missions, “Our remotely controlled system can help transform work within risky environments such as nuclear decommissioning and we’re already in talks with the UK nuclear establishment regarding the application of this advanced technology.”
Dr. Fishel confided that the most challenging aspect of this 15-month endeavor is not the technology, but managing all the contributing interests, “No kidding, this takes more time than one might expect. The engineers between companies work well together with almost no issues — we have a lot of brilliant people working on a pretty damn cool project which checks a lot of boxes for keeping engineers happy (and I like to count myself in that group). However, the business relationships get complicated at times since businesses have their own objectives and needs.” He continued to describe his diplomatic capabilities, “When conflicts arise, we try to accept our differences and focus on what common goals are bringing us together. This has certainly been a story of a sum being greater than the parts, so I think each partner and collaborator recognizes this is something special that is worth maintaining.” As with any startup, these interpersonal skills are invaluable in launching any venture, especially a mechatronics-led startup.
Telerobot’s tactile dexterity is rivaled only by Google’s Open AI’s Dactyl humanoid-hand, which stunned the robotics world this past October with its physical agility in solving a Rubik’s cube one-handed. The demonstration promoted the use of artificial intelligence over mechanics in accomplishing an array of complex problems through software. As Peter Welinder of Open AI explains, “Plenty of robots can solve Rubik’s cubes very fast. The important difference between what they did there and what we’re doing here is that those robots are very purpose-built. Obviously there’s no way you can use the same robot or same approach to perform another task. The robotics team at OpenAI has very different ambitions. We’re trying to build a general-purpose robot. Similar to how humans and how our human hands can do a lot of things, not just a specific task, we’re trying to build something that is much more general in its scope.” The key to Dactyl’s skilled movements is its algorithms and training data to foster general autonomy. Welinder elaborates further, “To train a real-world robot, to do anything complex, you need many years of experience. Even for a human, it takes a couple of years, and humans have millions of years of evolution to have the learning capabilities to operate a hand.”
Speed to market in solving real-world problems today is a key differentiator of the CRG team’s Telerobot approach. Rather than relying on deep learning to chip away at specific tasks over decades, the remote haptic controls are able to leverage human nimbleness immediately from distances across the globe. Dr. Fishel describes, “Obviously the advantage is the tactile feedback and high dexterity of the system that makes the system really simple and intuitive to use. Although I wouldn’t call it an unfair advantage, we’ve been saying touch is important in robotics for years. But, it is an observable fact that when you take away the sense of touch from humans their ability to manipulate dexterously is greatly diminished, so obviously robots that can’t feel aren’t going to be any better. We’ve fixed this with our Tactile Telerobot so this critical tactile and haptic information gets back to the operator.” He continued to unpack their methodology, “The reason we chose the telerobot over an autonomous approach is that human intelligence is still far superior to AI. As Judea Pearl has rightfully pointed out, until AI learns to properly deal with cause and effect, it is just pattern recognition, which might be impressive in what it can do from a computational standpoint but isn’t actually intelligent in a general sense.” When I pressed Dr. Fishel on his opinion of Open AI as a competitor, he retorted, “OpenAI is doing amazing things, we don’t see them as competition, but rather collaborators, especially as we move towards applications where we’re looking for partial or complete autonomy and teaching by demonstration.”
Human adeptness, especially with its hands, is one of the bodily attributes that separates humans from the apes.”There is a great debate on whether the human hand is an optimal end effector for everything in our environment, or whether we’ve simply designed everything in our environment to work well with our hands,” says Dr. Fishel. However, he remarked, “Whichever you subscribe to, the end result is that human hands are a pretty good tool for interacting with the world.” This beckons the question – who will eventually prevail in arm wrestling, cyborgs or humans?