Monday, July 13, 2015

The Running Man from Pensacola, Florida

Technology is changing our world. In April, I published How Will Attorneys (or any of us) Adapt. That post cites some other posts on the changes that technology will bring to the working world. Automation is coming. Anyone that doubts that should do some soul-searching. My coverage of the NCCI conference in Orlando in May included a post on disruptive technology, Salim Ismail and a Life Changing Seminar in Orlando.

These posts, and the references therein point to evidence of a coming automation. Three-D printers will alter manufacturing and even home construction. Software "autobots" will change litigation and a variety of business functions and processes. Jon Gelman even suggests that we could do away with hearing officers and judges, replacing us with the equivalent of a litigation ATM.

DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. According to its website, the mission of the agency is "enduring" and simple "to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security." Hold on there John Connor (Terminator), could there be a robot built to wage war in the interest of national security? It appears that this is not only possible, but the prototypes are already here. 

In the center of Florida is the metropolis of Pensacola (OK, not so center, and maybe not so metro), which is the home of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC). IHMC was one of 23 teams that competed in a recent "global robotics competition" out in California, sponsored by DARPA. IHMC's robot, "Running Man" came in second in the competition according to the Pensacola News Journal (PNJ). The complete results are on

The competition required completion of eight tasks and it was timed. According to the eight tasks required by this recent competition included "driving alone, walking through rubble, tripping circuit breakers, turning valves and climbing stairs." 

According to the PNJ, only three of the entrants completed all eight tasks. The IHMC robot "finished the course in just more than 50 minutes." The winner, from South Korea, "completed all eight tasks, but  did so six minutes faster than the IHMC robot." Some entrants moved on four legs, some on wheels and some on two legs. The Running Man was in this last group. According to the paper, the IHMC support team for the over six foot tall, 380 pound, Running Man was 23 people. 

According to, this competition was "launched in response to a humanitarian need that became glaringly clear during the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan." The Challenge was initiated "to accelerate progress in robotics and hasten the day when robots have sufficient dexterity and robustness to enter areas too dangerous for humans and mitigate the impacts of natural or man-made disasters."

One of the messages Salim Ismail delivered in April's NCCI program was "exponentials." Those technologies are "both information-based and doubling steadily in its price performance." As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Ismail says that price performance is doubling at incredible rates. He cites "brain imaging is doubling every 18 months. Sensors and drones are doubling in price performance every nine months . . .and solar energy has price performance doubling every 22 to 30 months." 

This price performance doubling is an outgrowth or description of Moore's law. Gordon Moore predicted in the 1960s that the performance of semi-conductors, for a given price, would double every 12 to 18 months. That is, for a constant input of value, performance would double. That prediction has been generally recognized as prophetic. However, development has generally outpaced his predictions. 

If the price performance regarding robotics continues on this predicted path, the capabilities of IHMC's next robot might be completion of 16 tasks (double) in the same 50 minutes or completion of the same 8 tasks in 25 minutes (half). Either could be seen as a doubling of performance in 2017. If that path continued to hold, then in 2019, the same 8 tasks might take 12 minutes, or 32 tasks might be completed in 50 minutes. in 2021, just six years from now, that next robot generation might complete 64 tasks in 50 minutes. In 2023, 128 tasks or 3 minutes for the 8; In 2025, 256 tasks or 1.5 minutes for the 8; in 2027 512 tasks or 45 seconds for the 8. 

There is a converse way to look at this, which is worthy of consideration. IHMC invested a great deal of money in Running Man. In two years, the next generation might complete the same number of tasks in the same 50 minutes. But, the robot might be built for half the cost. Thus, similarly, a doubling of the capability for the price. 

In the real world, both of these effects is likely to influence the ultimate progression. There are likely to be economies of scale and technological advances that decrease cost while capability likewise increases. To some extent this research will be funded by organizations like DARPA. And there will be "early adopters" who find the technology helpful in a particular industry or setting and are willing to pay for the "latest and greatest."

As those paths continue and converge, robotics will become increasingly effective (capability) and efficient (cost). Certainly, history has shown us that technology offerings can be expensive in early days. I got my first cellular phone in 1987 at a cost of over $1,000.00. I was an "early adopter." I think I paid $.25 per minute for each call in my "home city" and much more per minute when I "roamed." Today, the phone companies are much more numerous, the cell phones are virtually given away, the minutes are included in plans that make $.25 seem extreme, and no one under the age of 30 knows what "roaming" even meant. 

Could robotics follow the same developmental path? The first Mobile phone was created in 1973, and in 40 years it revolutionized the planet. If the Running Man is the equivalent of that 1973 Motorola, could the exponential development bring us to an I Robot state by 2055? A robot in every home, doing the cleaning, cooking, and more? If so, what will be the new presumption for firefighters, hazmat teams and others who today face some of the most dangerous situations on the planet? It is likely that those jobs will exist, but in much smaller numbers. Someone will be responsible for the equipment, but humans will likely no longer run into burning buildings. Those jobs may not be risk free, a robot in Germany killed a worker recently. 

There is some interesting video here from Yahoo, documenting the robotics. A new world is coming. How do we get ready for it? When they replace me with an ATM, I only hope that we are ready for that change. 

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