What Robots and AI Learned in 2015

The robots didn’t really take over in 2015, but at times it felt as if that might be where we’re headed.

There were signs that machines will soon take over manual work that currently requires human skill. Early in the year details emerged of a contest organized by Amazon to help robots do more work inside its vast product fulfillment centers.

The Amazon Picking challenge, as the event was called, was held at a prominent robotics conference later in the year. Teams competed for a $25,000 prize by designing a robot to identify and grasp items from one of Amazon’s storage shelves as quickly as possible (the winner picked and packed 10 items in 20 minutes). This might seem a trivial task for human workers, but figuring out how to grasp different objects arranged haphazardly on shelves in a real warehouse is still a formidable challenge for robot-kind.

Later in the year, we also got an exclusive look inside one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers, which showed just how sophisticated and automated they already are. Inside these warehouses, robots ferry products between human workers, and people operate as part of a carefully orchestrated, finely tuned production system.

A few months later, an even more impressive robot competition, the DARPA Robotics Challenge, was held in Pomona, California. Funded by the U.S. military and created in response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan, the event was designed to inspire the creation of humanoid robots capable of taking over in highly dangerous disaster scenarios.

The contest pushed the limits of robot sensing, locomotion, and manipulation with a series of grueling challenges, including opening doors, climbing stairs, and operating power tools. Again, these things might be easy enough for humans, but they are still extremely hard for robots, as a series of pratfalls involving several of the million-dollar robot contestants quickly highlighted. The $2 million first place prize eventually went to a robot that was able to navigate the course quickly because it could both walk and roll along on its knees.

And while robots are still inferior to us in lots of ways, the underlying technology is improving quickly. Researchers are devising new ways for robots to learn, and ways for them to share the information they have picked up, which should help accelerate progress further still. It’s hardly surprising, then, that robots are appearing all sorts of new commercial settings, from store greeters and shopping assistants to hospital helpers and hotel concierges.

It was also a big year for automated, or “self-driving,” cars. Several new companies, including Apple, Uber, and even China’s Baidu, joined Google and many automakers in researching automated driving technology. We explored how this trend is enabled not only by cheaper sensors and better control software, but also by the increasing computerization of the automobile. The emissions scandal currently engulfing Volkswagen is another example of the growing importance of computer code in today’s vehicles.

To read the rest of this article, published in Technology Review, please click here.