Robots are learning to walk and work. While robot dogs are not yet man’s best friend, real autonomy and reasoning will make them useful companions in industry, search & rescue and even space exploration. But you must walk before you can run and machines are learning lessons from biology for better walking robots.
The first chords of the 1960s Motown song Do You Love Me, by the Contours sound on the speakers as the robots start to dance. Several models, including a bipedal humanoid version, and a four-legged dog-like contraption, are seen dancing with each other. They shuffle, do pirouettes and swing.
Released by the US robotics company Boston Dynamics, the viral video of robots with legs dancing created a stir at the end of 2020. Reactions ranged from people suggesting it was made using CGI, to fear that the robots were going to take over the world. Yet for all the impressive engineering, the video also showed the limitations that legged robots face. Whereas for humans dancing is quite easy, for robots it’s incredibly hard, and the three-minute video meant that every movement of the robots had to be manually scripted in detail.
‘Today robots are still relatively stupid,’ said Marco Hutter, professor at ETH Zurich and expert in robotics. ‘A lot of the Boston Dynamics videos are hand-crafted movements for specific environments. They need human supervision. In terms of real autonomy and reasoning, we’re still far away from humans, animals or what we expect from science-fiction.’
Yet these sorts of robots could be very helpful to humanity. They could help us when disasters strike, they could improve industrial operations and logistics and they could even help us explore outer space. But for that to happen we need to make legged robots better at basic tasks like walking and teach them how to do so without supervision.
The ERC-project LeMo is one of the investigations launched by European researchers to make robots move more autonomously. Their core premise is that legged locomotion isn’t what it could be, and that machine learning techniques could improve it. LeMo is specifically focused on so-called reinforcement learning.
‘Reinforcement learning uses a simulation to generate massive data for training a neural network control policy,’ explained Hutter, who is also the project leader of LeMo. ‘The better the robot walks in the simulation, the higher reward it gets. If the robot falls over, or slips, it gets punished.’
The robot they use in the project is a 50 kilogram, dog-like, four-legged robot. On top of it are several sensors and cameras that allow it to detect its environment. This part has become pretty standard for legged robots, yet the advancement LeMo produces lies in the software. Instead of using a model-based approach, where the researchers program rules into the system, like ‘when there’s a rock on the ground, lift up your feet higher’, they ‘train’ an AI-system in a simulation.
Here the robot’s system walks over and over through a virtual terrain simulation, and every time it performs well it receives a reward. Every time it fails it receives a punishment. By repeating this process millions of times, the robot learns how to walk through trial-and-error.
‘LeMo is one of the first times reinforcement learning has been used on legged robots,’ said Hutter. ‘Because of this, the robot can now walk across challenging terrain, like slippery ground and inclined steps. We practically never fall anymore.’
Using this technology, the ETH Zurich team recently won a $2 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contest in which teams were challenged to deploy a fleet of robots to explore challenging underground areas by themselves.
‘Legged robots are already used for industrial inspections and other observation tasks,’ said Hutter. ‘But there are also applications like search & rescue and even space exploration, where we need better locomotion. Using techniques like reinforcement learning we can accomplish this.’
Another ERC-project, called M-Runners, is working on how to build legged robots that work in outer space. Today when we launch robots to places like the moon or Mars, they are generally wheeled robots. These need to land, and ride on, relatively flat pieces of terrain.
‘But the interesting things for geologists aren’t generally located in the flatlands,’ said professor Alin Albu-Schäffer, of the TU Munich and the German Aerospace Center. ‘They are found in places like canyons, where rovers cannot easily go.’
Which is why there’s a strong interest in sending legged robots up into space. But before we can do that, more research needs to happen on making them work better. M-Runner here takes inspiration from nature.
‘Our hypothesis is that biology is more energy efficient,’ said Albu-Schäffer. ‘Our muscles and tendons have some elasticity. Animals, like a horse galloping, use this elasticity to store and release energy. Traditional robots on the other hand are rigid, and don’t do that.’
This means that legged robots are not as efficient as they could be. But really understanding these processes, and transferring them to robots, is quite a challenge. It requires a deep understanding of biology, but also of the mathematics behind how movements are made and repeated.
The complex system of the limb, with a high amount of interdependent parts like muscles, tendons and bones, working together very closely to repeat movements like walking or running. ‘Modelling this mathematically is a scientifically unsolved question,’ said Albu-Schäffer.
Which is what the M-Runner project is trying to solve, and transfer to robots, a quest that’s heavily interdisciplinary. ‘We work on biomechanics and biological systems,’ said Albu-Schäffer. ‘But also neuroscience, mathematics and physics. In turn we build tools that apply this to the actual robots.’
So far the project has already built a prototype robot, a dog-sized variant, on which the researchers are testing different types of running and gaits. The eventual goal is to apply this theoretical research into a role such as space exploration. ‘We also think about low gravity in simulations,’ says Albu-Schäffer. ‘The robot here can do more spectacular jumps and stride farther.’
Beyond this research, legged robots are already becoming integrated into our economy and society today. ‘These machines are already in use,’ said Hutter. ‘It’s not a household item yet. But in industrial contexts it’s getting more popular, and in China even household use-cases are being investigated.’
But their mass market appeal relies on these robots becoming better at walking and acting in the real world. Which is why more research is needed. ‘Legged robots aren’t just about Boston Dynamics,’ said Albu-Schäffer. ‘In Europe cutting edge-research is also being done, and we’re seeing real advances in the technology.’
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Easing job jitters in the digital revolution
As new technologies reshape workplaces, EU research has come up with new ways to help companies and workers stay in control.
By ANDREW DUNNE
Professor Steven Dhondt has a reassurance of sorts for people in the EU worried about losing their jobs to automation: relax.
Dhondt, an expert in work and organisational change at the Catholic University Leuven in Belgium, has studied the impact of technology on jobs for the past four decades. Fresh from leading an EU research project on the issue, he stresses opportunities rather than threats.
‘We need to develop new business practices and welfare support but, with the right vision, we shouldn’t see technology as a threat,’ Dhondt said. ‘Rather, we should use it to shape the future and create new jobs.’
The rapid and accelerating advance in digital technologies across the board is regarded as the world’s fourth industrial revolution, ushering in fundamental shifts in how people live and work.
If the first industrial revolution was powered by steam, the second by electricity and the third by electronics, the latest will be remembered for automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, or AI. It’s known as “Industry 4.0”.
‘Whether it was the Luddite movement in the 1800s through the introduction of automatic spinning machines in the wool industry or concerns about AI today, questions about technology’s impact on jobs really reflect wider ones about employment practices and the labour market,’ said Dhondt.
The EU project that he led explored how businesses and welfare systems could better adapt to support workers in the face of technological changes. The initiative, called Beyond4.0, began in January 2019 and wrapped up in June 2023.
While the emergence of self-driving cars and AI-assisted robots holds big potential for economic growth and social progress, they also sound alarm bells.
More than 70% of EU citizens fear that new technologies will “steal” people’s jobs, according to a 2019 analysis by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training.
The Beyond4.0 researchers studied businesses across Europe that have taken proactive and practical steps to empower employees.
One example is a family-run Dutch glass company called Metaglas, which decided that staying competitive in the face of technological changes required investing more in its own workforce.
Metaglas offered workers greater openness with management and a louder voice on the company’s direction and product development.
The move, which the company named “MetaWay”, has helped it retain workers while turning a profit that is being reinvested in the workforce, according to Dhondt.
He said the example shows the importance in the business world of managers’ approach to the whole issue.
‘The technology can be an enabler, not a threat, but the decision about that lies with management in organisations,’ Dhondt said. ‘If management uses technology to downgrade the quality of jobs, then jobs are at risk. If management uses technology to enhance jobs, then you can see workers and organisations learn and improve.’
The Metaglas case has fed into a “knowledge bank” meant to inform business practices more broadly.
Dhondt also highlighted the importance of regions in Europe where businesses and job trainers join forces to support people.
BEYOND4.0 studied the case of the Finnish city of Oulu – once a leading outpost of mobile-phone giant Nokia. In the 2010s, the demise of Nokia’s handset business threatened Oulu with a “brain drain” as the company’s engineers were laid-off.
But collaboration among Nokia, local universities and policymakers helped grow new businesses including digital spin-offs and kept hundreds of engineers in the central Finnish region, once a trading centre for wood tar, timber and salmon.
Some Nokia engineers went to the local hospital to work on electronic healthcare services – “e-health” – while others moved to papermaker Stora Enso, according to Dhondt.
Nowadays there are more high-tech jobs in Oulu than during Nokia’s heyday. The BEYOND4.0 team held the area up as a successful “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that could help inform policies and practices elsewhere in Europe.
In cases where people were out of work, the project also looked to new forms of welfare support.
Dhondt’s Finnish colleagues examined the impact of a two-year trial in Finland of a “universal basic income” – or UBI – and used this to assess the feasibility of a different model called “participation income.”
In the UBI experiment, participants each received a monthly €560 sum, which was paid unconditionally. Although UBI is often touted as an answer to automation, BEYOND4.0’s evaluation of the Finnish trial was that it could weaken the principle of solidarity in society.
The project’s participation income approach requires recipients of financial support to undertake an activity deemed useful to society. This might include, for example, care for the elderly or for children.
While detailed aspects are still being worked out, the BEYOND4.0 team discussed participation with the government of Finland and the Finnish parliament has put the idea on the agenda for debate.
Dhondt hopes the project’s findings, including on welfare support, will help other organisations better navigate the changing tech landscape.
Another researcher keen to help people adapt to technological changes is Dr Aisling Tuite, a labour-market expert at the South East Technical University in Ireland.
Tuite has looked at how digital technologies can help job seekers find suitable work.
She coordinated an EU-funded project to help out-of-work people find jobs or develop new skills through a more open online system.
Called HECAT, the project ran from February 2020 through July 2023 and brought together researchers from Denmark, France, Ireland, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland.
In recent years, many countries have brought in active labour-market policies that deploy computer-based systems to profile workers and help career counsellors target people most in need of help.
While this sounds highly targeted, Tuite said that in reality it often pushes people into employment that might be unsuitable for them and is creating job-retention troubles.
‘Our current employment systems often fail to get people to the right place – they just move people on,’ she said. ‘What people often need is individualised support or new training. We wanted to develop a product that could be as useful for people looking for work as for those supporting them.’
Ready to run
HECAT’s online system combines new vacancies with career counselling and current labour-market data.
The system was tested during the project and a beta version is now available via My Labour Market and can be used in all EU countries where data is available.
It can help people figure out where there are jobs and how to be best positioned to secure them, according to Tuite.
In addition to displaying openings by location and quality, the system offers detailed information about career opportunities and labour-market trends including the kinds of jobs on the rise in particular areas and the average time it takes to find a position in a specific sector.
Tuite said feedback from participants in the test was positive.
She recalled one young female job seeker saying it had made her more confident in exploring new career paths and another who said knowing how long the average “jobs wait” would be eased the stress of hunting.
Looking ahead, Tuite hopes the HECAT researchers can demonstrate the system in governmental employment-services organisations in numerous EU countries over the coming months.
‘There is growing interest in this work from across public employment services in the EU and we’re excited,’ she said.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
New WEF Immersive Technology Hub to Address Climate Tipping Points
The World Economic Forum introduced a new polar tipping points hub today in its Global Collaboration Village. The purpose-driven platform, which is powered by next-generation technology, will bring global leaders together in the metaverse to solve the deepening effects of the climate and nature crisis. The hub is an immersive virtual reality space and will help confront the pressing issue of climate tipping points, particularly those located in the polar regions.
The launch of the hub coincides with the annual summer sea ice extent minimum in the Arctic, which adds a timely emphasis on the pressing need to address polar warming and climate challenges, and accelerate progress toward reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ability to simulate in real time the tipping points at different temperatures could help drive faster decision-making.
“Breaching the planetary tipping points will bring dire consequences for the interconnected ecosystems that support life on our planet,” said Gim Huay Neo, Managing Director and Head of the Centre for Nature and Climate at the World Economic Forum. “By understanding the drivers and impacts, the global community can respond more effectively to the climate and nature crisis. Through collective action, business and government can innovate, mitigate and adapt to the risks associated with global temperature rise and the resulting tipping points in the polar regions, and beyond.”
Highlighting the urgency of polar warming
Human-induced warming, as the world approaches and surpasses a 1.5°C increase, is edging dangerously close to triggering several critical polar tipping points. Among the 16 climate tipping points, six are in particularly precarious states, even with temperature rises below 2°C. Five of these tipping points are located in the polar regions, encompassing both the Arctic and Antarctic. This situation has far-reaching global implications.
The nexus of polar tipping points, with the potential to disrupt interconnected Earth systems, can lead to stability challenges across geographies. This includes the albedo effect, which relates to the reflectivity of surfaces. High albedo reflects more sunlight, while low absorbs, which has an impact on climate and temperature. In other words, the whiteness of the snow and ice layer reflects heat away from the Earth and prevents it from warming the oceans and land (including permafrost) even more. This albedo effect is declining due to polar ice and snow loss.
There is also a long-term linear relationship between carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity and Arctic sea ice decline, which means that, as emissions increase, sea ice will continue to decline. The decline is accelerating global vulnerabilities like extreme weather, heat stress, compromised food and water security, climate migration and disruptions in supply chains.
An evolving platform for visualization and collaboration
From within the Global Collaboration Village, a World Economic Forum initiative in partnership with Accenture and Microsoft, the Polar Tipping Points Hub offers an immersive experience that allows collaborators to visualize the ramifications of polar warming on Earth’s intricate systems. Through a monitoring station, visitors gain a deeper insight into three of the five pivotal polar tipping points that become precarious if temperatures rise by 1.5°C or beyond.
This initiative serves the dual purpose of enhancing awareness and facilitating cross-sectoral collaboration among Village partners and existing Forum communities. The hub is a work in progress, continually incorporating new data to ensure it remains at the forefront of polar and climate research.
“At the World Economic Forum, our central mission is to convene stakeholders for collaborative problem-solving, to improve the state of the world,” said Rebecca Ivey, Head of the Global Collaboration Village at the World Economic Forum. “The Village democratizes this process by using immersive technologies that enable us to achieve more, together, even across distances. Our aim is to make these tools accessible to diverse audiences, amplifying their potential to contribute to the betterment of the world. “
Partnering for a resilient future
The Polar Tipping Points Hub launch aligns closely with the Forum’s commitment to addressing global challenges through concerted initiatives. Compelling virtual immersion into the polar regions will illustrate current warming trends and the consequent cascade of risks, offering a vital tool for comprehending the urgency of unified action.
“The ability to connect and collaborate in shared immersive spaces, spanning distances and devices, can inspire team creativity and outcomes that may otherwise not have been possible,” said Navjot Virk, Vice-President of Microsoft Mesh. “The Global Collaboration Village’s Polar Tipping Points Hub demonstrates how people can leverage immersive experiences built on Microsoft Mesh technology to see and better understand the complex and interconnected challenges of global issues, like climate change.”
“With the Global Collaboration Village’s Polar Tipping Points Hub, citizens, organizations and government representatives have the opportunity to experience and engage with the consequences of climate change, one of the world’s most pressing challenges,” added David Treat, co-lead of Accenture’s Metaverse Continuum business group. “We believe that, by simulating future scenarios, immersive technology can drive a change in perspective while convening stakeholders in new ways to collaborate and shape potential solutions, which is exactly what prompted us to partner with the World Economic Forum for the Global Collaboration Village initiative”.
Collaboration on new and combined data sets from Arctic Basecamp, NASA, the National Snow and Ice Data Center and other institutions has also been instrumental to the development of the hub.
Generative AI to Enhance Creativity, Automate Routine Tasks for Future Jobs
How will large language models (LLMs), deep-learning algorithms that can recognize, summarize, translate, predict and generate content using very large datasets, affect current and future jobs? That is the focus of the new World Economic Forum white paper Jobs of Tomorrow: Large Language Models and Jobs.
The white paper finds that LLMs could be a boon for jobs that require critical thinking, complex problem-solving skills and creativity, including those in engineering, mathematics and scientific analysis. These tools could benefit workers by increasing the productivity of routine tasks and making their roles more rewarding and focused on a higher added value. This paper takes a structured approach to understanding the direct impact of LLMs on specific jobs.
“Generative AI is poised to impact labour markets significantly, but this impact will be highly different across different roles,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum. “Business leaders, policy-makers and employees must collaborate on harnessing the potential of new jobs while managing displacement and ensuring a future of work that empowers and elevates people.”
According to the analysis, which examined more than 19,000 distinct tasks across 867 different occupations likely to be impacted by LLMs, the industries with the highest estimates of overall potential exposure – both in automation and augmentation – are financial services and capital markets, along with insurance and pension management.
As LLMs advance, new roles will also be created, including AI developers, interface and interaction designers, AI content creators, data curators and specialists in AI ethics and governance.
The jobs most at risk of automation – with up to four-fifths of the tasks automated – are those that involve routine and repetitive language tasks, including roles such as credit authorizers, checkers and clerks. The occupations projected to remain relatively unaltered include education, guidance, career counsellors and advisers, with 84% of their tasks having a low exposure to change.
This new data on the impact of LLMs supplements and reinforces the findings from the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023, which found that up to a quarter of jobs are expected to change in the next five years from the combined impact of technology, the green transition and the geoeconomic outlook.
The paper argues that businesses and governments must take proactive steps to prepare for the effects of LLMs in the workforce, including by improving foresight, creating an adaptable workforce, implementing systems that facilitate job transitions and encouraging lifelong learning.
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