Do Robots Need to Resemble Humans?

By Lev Grossman (Time, 8 Jun 2015)

If it takes so much backbreaking math, why teach a robot to walk?  Why bother?

Predator drones don’t walk.  Roombas don’t walk.  R2-D2 doesn’t walk.  The attachment to legs and really the human form at all seems really old-fashioned, even atavistic.  The surface of the earth is a challenging enough environment for a robot as it is.  Why not just put wheels on a robot and call it a day?

This is not an uncontroversial topic in the world of robotics.  The conventional argument in favor of humanoid robots is that they’re better at operating in environments that were built by and for humans.  According to Gill Pratt, who coordinates robotic challenges for DARPA:

Doorways have a certain width, door handles have a certain height, the steering wheel on cars is in a certain place.  All of these things are built for our form.  If you want a machine to adapt to it, that makes a lot of sense.

But there’s room for disagreement on this score.  Colin Angle is one of the world’s foremost roboticists and the CEO of iRobot, a prominent supplier of robots to the military; it also makes the Roomba.  One thing iRobot doesn’t make is humanoid robots.  “Walking robots aren’t particularly  practical,” Angle says.  He prefers wheels or even tank-style tracks–as examples he gives iRobot’s Kobra and PackBot robots, which are marketed to military and civil defense agencies.

They can run up stairs at 5 to 10 mph.  They don’t have to step, and you can drop them off the second story of buildings and they’ll survive.  They’re designed to operate in human-style spaces, but they’re radically simpler solutions than legs.

He supports competitions like the [DARPA’s recent] Robotic Challenge as a way to stimulate innovation, but he points out that when the Fukushima disaster happened, there were in fact rescue robots already available.  They just didn’t look like people.

When push came to shove a few years back, when the world needed a robot to go inside a reactor and help figure out how to shut it down, the robot that went in had tracks.

There are good arguments on both sides.  Jerry Pratt, a lead engineer at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, is eloquent on the topic of the human body’s exceptional mobility and its ultimate superiority to other forms in dealing with rough terrain.

Humans and primates are just so good at getting places.  You can crawl under a table, get on top of the table, move the table, you can climb over a garbage can, you can squeeze between objects.  Imagine a door that’s wedged so it can only open about 10 inches:  a human can get through that, no problem.  The dimension of a human are just really well suited for mobility through a really challenging environment.

Though if there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that walking robots aren’t anywhere near ready for the field yet.

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A Quick Visit to Playgrounds in Kigali, Rwanda

I met a UN contractor through this blog.  We agreed to meet in Kigali, Rwanda, and he would going me some of UN’s work with preschools and primary schools (including playground equipment) in the rural areas around Kigali.

On Sunday (20 Jun 2015), we crossed the border from Uganda into Rwanda.  The next morning, Nathan Gauthier–our guide–took us on a visit to a modern preschool that is currently nearing completion and an established large preschool/primary school with damaged outdoor playground equipment.

The preschool was constructed in a circular shape and included classrooms, composting toilets, kitchen, multi-purpose area, and offices.  It was a nice design, but maybe a little too sophisticated for small children (particularly the toilets).  The playground equipment included a small swing set, a slide (designed to look like a bull), a teeter totter, and a simple merry-go-round.

Swing Set at Kigali Area Preschool

Swing Set at Kigali Area Preschool

The swing set was like many that we had seen in Uganda, except the pendulum portion was simplified (pipe over a small metal bar).  I think the swing sets would be better if they spread the legs at each end of the frame.  The swing seats have only one connection to the chain on each side and they consist of a metal frame with a wooden insert.  I really don’t like this design of the seat.  I would prefer no metal in the seat and a double connection to the chain at each end.  Nathan indicated that the connection attaching the chain to the seat frame is prone to failure.  The swing set was made at the fabricator and then transported to the site.

Metal-framed Swing Seats with Chain Welded Directly to the Frame

Metal-framed Swing Seat with Chain Attached Directly to the Metal Frame

Swing Hangers and Corners for the UN-constructed Preschool

Swing Hangers and Corners for the UN-constructed Preschool

The teeter totter (seesaw) was made of wood.  The design was okay, but Nathan pointed out that the handles need to be more more securely attached and the center pivot was too low to the ground.  Thus there wasn’t much rocking action.  Nathan felt that the pivot machinery was over designed.

Wood Teeter Totter at Preschool Near Kigali

Wooden Teeter Totter at Preschool Near Kigali

At the established preschool/primary school we checked out their playground equipment.  The two swing sets that were in place were similar to the one we had seen at the preschool.  The swings were being heavy used and both bucked (one of the legs came out of the ground as the children were swinging).  This indicates that the legs were not securely buried in the ground.  In fact, 2 of the legs had the scrap metal at the bottom of legs out of the ground.  The scrap is welded to the pipe to anchor the pipe to the concrete and should be underground.  The exposed scrap represents a danger to bare-foot children.  The bucking motion severely torques the welds on the horizontal pipe.

Swing Set at the Preschool/Primary School

Swing Set at the Preschool/Primary School

Exposed Scrap Metal at the Bottom of the Swing Set Legs

Exposed Scrap Metal at the Bottom of the Swing Set Legs

The teeter totter (seesaw) was an even greater problem.   The pivot was too high off the ground.  This made it too hard to get on and off.  If a child got off at one end, the other end would come crashing to the ground.  This is a danger to both the children on the teeter totter and any child that might be under the crashing end.  The seats on the teeter totter were made like metal chairs, a design I don’t particularly like.  At one end of the teeter totter the handles were broken off.

Teeter Totter (Seesaw) that Is too High Off the Ground

Teeter Totter (Seesaw) that Is too High Off the Ground

After this visit we headed back to Uganda and ultimately to Utah, USA.

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An Assessment Visit to the Batwa Pygmy Community in Southern Uganda

The Batwa pygmies were moved from their original homeland when the Impenetrable Forest National Park (best known for its mountain gorilla population) was established.  They’ve had an awkward time adjusting to their new environment which is just adjacent to the park.  We had been invited for a visit and had solar-lighting equipment to deliver.

Twenty-two kilometers outside of Kabale, Uganda, we turned off onto a rough unpaved road for a 76-kilometer (45 mile) drive to one of the entries to the park, Bwindi-Buhoma.  We were there because there are several Batwa communities in the general area.  We were met in Buhoma by Rev. Canon Enos Komunda, Batwa coordinator for the Anglican Church.  He indicated that there are about 900 Batwa around this edge of the park.

The Road to Buhoma is Very Picturesque

The Road to Buhoma is Very Picturesque and Rough

To get to one of the Batwa settlements, we drove up a short distance and then walked about a kilometer.  A newly constructed primary school could be seen from a distance.  We stopped briefly to talk to headmaster and one of his school teachers.  We were looking for a possible location for a future swing set and other outdoor playground equipment.  Because of the steepness of the terrain, we could only immediately locate one site.  We also talked to the school staff about the needs of the school.  The Interethnic Health Alliance, a Utah-based NGO, had provided supplies and cash for the installation of solar-powered lights in the school.

The Batwa School as Seen from a Distance

The Batwa School as Seen from a Distance

From the school, we walked around the small Batwa settlement.  Rev. Enos pointed out several of the projects that are being initiated to improve living conditions including:  raising rabbits, farming, and future fish ponds.  He also mentioned the need for solar-lighting in the small homes.

We eventually stopped at a small two-room Batwa home.  There were 3 women elegantly dressed standing outside.  They were getting ready to head to church.  I asked if we could take a picture and they agreed.

Rev. Enos, Myself, and Batwa Women near Buhoma, Uganda

Rev. Enos, Myself, and Batwa Women near Buhoma, Uganda

After the photograph we were invited inside.  I mentioned that I was from the USA.  The table cloth in the room had a map of the world.  I tried to point out that I had come a long way to get to Buhoma.  I think they understood.  It was a very pleasant experience and hopefully, in the future, we can do more to help the Batwa pygmies.

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Changes in Ugandan Mountain Community of Kyarumba

The small community of Kyarumba, Uganda, is located in the southern end of Rwenzori Mountains (aka Mountains of the Moon).  It straddles a wild river that is prone to flooding.  The community recently got electricity.

Crossing the River that Divides Kyarumba

Crossing the River that Divides Kyarumba

In January 2015, I met up with Hank Pellissier and we spent half a day in Kyarumba, getting to know the needs of the villagers.  Hank provided assistance to a community woodworking-training center and to a science center funded by the Mormon Transhumanist Association and the Christian Transhumanist Association.  My friends and I constructed a 4-seat swing set (with financial assistance from Hank) at the local primary school.

Primary School Children Assembling Under the Swing Set Recently Constructed

Primary School Children Assembling Under the Swing Set Recently Constructed

Yesterday (June 2015), I returned to Kyarumba.  We provided some power tools to the woodworking shop, were entertained by the students at the primary school (where the swing was constructed), and provided educational games (a gift from Hank) to the science center.  The center is well maintained and well used by the local students.

Children in Front of the MTA/CTA Scienc Center

Children in Front of the MTA/CTA Scienc Center

The entertainment provided by the primary school children was great fun.  They sang and danced.  They had personized some of the songs.  During the ceremony, our contact in Kyarumba indicated that the swing set had encouraged children to attend and stay in school.

Even though we were able to spend only 2 hours in Kyarumba, it was a great visit.  We hope to continue our support for this small isolated village.

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Computer-training Center in Masaka, Uganda

In January (2015), my son-in-law and grandson installed a small computer-training facility in a LDS Chapel in Masaka, Uganda.  The LDS chapel was chosen for several reasons:

  • secure location;
  • rooms available Monday thru Saturday,
  • availability of a relatively high-speed Internet connection; and
  • reliable power supply.

The facility started out in a small room with 6 chromebook computers.  They are hooked to the Internet with a 4G wi-fi router.

This facility was made possible by the wonderful cooperation of Branch President Akera George and funding provided by the Mormon Transhumanist Association and my Mother, Anna Lou Hansen.  When we stopped in to see the Branch President today (June 2015), he indicated that the computer-facility was very popular and he considered it a great success.  When we asked how the computer center was being used, he provided the following partial list.

  • studying at Kahn Academy,
  • doing homework,
  • improving computer skills,
  • Internet surfing, and
  • emailing.

The purpose for our June visit was to add an HP Inkject printer to the system, which we did.

Installing the HP Printer at the Masaka Branch Computer-Training Center

Installing the HP Printer at the Masaka Branch Computer-Training Center

In an earlier visit this month, representatives from the Interethnic Health Alliance dropped off an electric sewing machine.  We asked President George about the possibility of setting up a sewing center similar to the computer center.  He liked the idea.  So we hope to get that facility started in a few months.  My mother loves sewing and she will be happy to see such a facility set up the Masaka Chapel

The training facility in Masaka also has a projector and speakers that was contributed by the Mormon Transhumanist Association.  While it is now used used largely to entertain children, in the future, we will be using it for training videos.

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Constructing at Swing Set at an Islamic Primary School near Arua, Uganda

Today we met up with staff from the Islamic University in Arua, located in the northwest corner of Uganda, and headed 30 kilometers over a rough to a large Islamic primary school (Hirai).  The goal was to construct a 4-seat swing set.  We also planned to show movies at the school.  The school doesn’t have electricity, so for this latter task, we used a laptop and a battery-powered, LED projector.

The locals helped a great deal with the construction of the swing set; they helped with assembly of the frame, dug holes, and placed concrete.  To assemble the frame, we had to drill 40 holes in the this pipe for the frame.  This work we did with a Makita battery-powered drill.

Installing Swing Set at Hirai Islamic Primary School, with Mosque in the Background

Installing Swing Set at Hirai Islamic Primary School, with Mosque in the Background

The swing was constructed using galvinized, 2-inch (ID) pipe and chain which is purchased localled.  The pipe connectors are made by a technical school in Kampala.  The swing seat hangers and chain connectors are brought from the USA.  We’ve had difficulties getting the hangers made in Uganda

School Child Trying Out the New Swing Set

School Child Trying Out the New Swing Set

While we were constructing the swing set, a woman from SeeeMe (a Park City-based NGO) showed movies to the students.  They crowded into small classrom.  The room turned out to be quite uncomfortable so we tried a Makita battery-powered fun.  That helped some.  So in the future we will use more fans.  Despite the difficulties, the children loved watching the movies.

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Possible Shade Structures for African Schools

Because of the heat and humidity, much of Africa’s education occurs in the shade out-of-doors.  Thus, I wondered about constructing shade structures.

At a Christian restaurant in Lira, Uganda, I saw two wall-less shades structures that are easy to construct.  The first is a tin-roofed rectangular structure that is supported on pipes (the pipes typically used to support porch roofs in sub-Saharan Africa).  The pipe and tin roofing can be easily purchased and are not particularly expensive.

Rectangular Shade Structure at the Christian Restaurant

Rectangular Shade Structure at the Christian Restaurant

The structure at the restaurant was 6 meters long and about 3 meters wide.  The roof was partially supported by a rigid section of metal fence.

The Metal Roof is Partially Support by a Rigid Section of Metal Fence.

The Metal Roof is Partially Support by a Rigid Section of Metal Fence.

The second outbuilding at the restaurant was circular and supported with the same type of pipe (12 of them), but had a thatched roof.  The thatch is supported by a bamboo frame.  This shade structure looks more traditionally African than the tin roofed one.

Thatched Roofed Shade Structure at the Christian Restaurant

Thatched Roofed Shade Structure at the Christian Restaurant

Somebody with a knowledge of thatched roofs would have to assist with the construction of this shade structure.  The one at the restaurant is quite large and could easily accommodate a small class.

Bamboo Frame for the Thatched Roof

Bamboo Frame for the Thatched Roof

The first structure, if installed properly, could support solar panels and be used for rainwater harvesting.  With the second one, these add-ons would be much more difficult.  But the second one is much more visually appealing and perhaps more useful as an outdoor classroom.

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