Cambrian Explosion of robots, drones and automation

The current most advanced robot cook is the hamburger maker developed by Momentum Machines, a startup funded by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. It takes in raw meat, buns, condiments, sauces, and seasonings, and converts these into finished, bagged burgers at rates as high as 400 per hour. The machine does much of its own food preparation, and to preserve freshness it does not start grinding, mixing, and cooking until each order is placed. It also allows diners to greatly customize their burgers, specifying not only how they’d like them cooked, but also the mix of meats in the patty. Reviewers confirm that the hamburgers taste very good.

Momentum Machines secured over $18 million in financing, according to a SEC filing in May, 2017.

Automatic chefs are early examples of what Gill Pratt, the CEO of the Toyota Research Institute calls an unfolding “Cambrian Explosion” in robotics. The original Cambrian Explosion, which began more than 500 million years ago, was a relatively brief period of time during which most of the major forms of life on Earth — the phyla — appeared. Almost all the body types present on our planet today can trace their origins back to this burst of intense evolutionary innovation.

One of the most important enablers of the Cambrian Explosion was vision — the moment when biological species first developed the ability to see the world. This opened up a massive new set of capabilities for our ancestors. Pratt makes the point that we are now at a similar threshold for machines. For the first time in history, machines are learning to see, and thereby gain the many benefits that come with vision.

A gyrosensor made in the 1990s cost $10,000 and was 1 inch in diameter and 3 inches long (larger than D size battery). Now many gyrosensors fit on tiny little chip or a few tiny little chips that cost three dollars.

In the fall of 2015 the ninety-five-year-old Japanese firm Komatsu, the second largest construction equipment company in the world, announced a partnership with the US drone startup Skycatch. The American company’s small aerial vehicles would fly over a site, precisely mapping it in three dimensions. They would continuously send this information to the cloud, where software would match it against the plans for a site and use the resulting information to direct an autonomous fleet of bulldozers, dump trucks, and other earth- moving equipment.

• Automated milking systems milk about one-quarter of the cows in leading dairy countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands today. Within ten years, this figure is expected to rise to 50 percent.

• Ninety percent of all crop spraying in Japan is currently done by unmanned helicopters.

How will our minds and bodies work in tandem with these machines? There are two main ways. First, as the machines are able to do more work in the physical world, we’ll do less and less of it, and instead use our brains for creative endeavors, and for work that requires empathy, leadership, teamwork, and coaching. This is clearly what’s happening in agriculture, humanity’s oldest industry.

The second way people will work with robots and their kin is, quite literally, side by side with them. Again, this is nothing new; factory workers have long been surrounded by machines, often working in close quarters with them. Our combination of sharp minds, acute senses, dexterous hands, and sure feet have not yet been matched by any machine, and it remains a hugely valuable combination. Andy’s favorite demonstration of it came on a tour of the storied Ducati motorcycle factory in Bologna, Italy. Ducati engines are particularly complex, and he was interested to see how much automation was involved in assembling them. The answer, it turned out, was almost none.

Each engine was put together by a single person, who walked alongside a slow-moving conveyor belt. As the belt passed by the engine parts that were needed at each stage of assembly, the worker picked them up and put them where they belonged, fastening them in place and adjusting as necessary. Ducati engine assembly required locomotion, the ability to manipulate objects in a variety of tight spaces, good eyesight, and a highly-refined sense of touch. Ducati’s assessment was that no automation possessed all of these capabilities, so engine assembly remained a human job.