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RSS 2018 Highlights

In Machine Learning, Paper Talk, Robotics on July 10, 2018 at 3:18 pm

by Li Yang Ku (Gooly)

I was at RSS (Conference on Robotics Science and System) in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. The conference was held in the Carnegie music hall and the conference badge can also be used to visit the two Carnegie museums next to it. (The Eskimo and native American exhibition on the third floor is a must see. Just in case you don’t know, an igloo can be built within 1.5 hours by just two Inuits and there is a video of it.)

RSS is a relatively small conference compared to IROS and ICRA. With only one single track, you get to see every accepted paper from many different fields ranging from robotic whiskers to surgical robots. I would however argue that the highlights of this year’s RSS are the Keynote talks by Bernardine Dias and Chad Jenkins. Unlike most keynote talks I’ve been to, these two talks were less about new technologies but about humanity and diversity. In this post, I am going to talk about both talks plus a few interesting papers in RSS.

a) Bernardine Dias, “Robotics technology for underserved communities: challenges, rewards, and lessons learned.”

Bernadine’s group focuses on changing technologies so that they can be accessible to communities that are left behind. One of the technologies developed was a tool for helping blind students learn braille and it had significant impact among blind communities across the globe. Bernadine gave an amazing talk at RSS. However, the video of her talk is not public yet (not sure if it will be) and surprisingly not many videos of her are on the internet. The closest content I can find is a really nice audio interview with Bernardine. There is also a short video describing their work below, but what this talk is really about is not the technology or design but the lessons learned through helping these underserved communities.

When roboticist talk about helping the society, many of them focus on the technology and left the actual application to the future. Bernadine’s group are different in that they actually travel to these underserved communities to understand what they need and integrate their feedbacks to the design process directly. This is easier said then done. You have to understand each community before your visit, some acts are considered good in one culture but an insult in another. Giving without understanding often results in waste. Bernardine mentioned in her talk that one of the schools in an underserved community they collaborated with received a large one-time donations for buying computers. It was a large event where important people came and was broadcasted on the news. However, to accommodate these hardwares, this two classroom school has to give up one of there classrooms and therefore reduce the number of classes they can teach. Ironically, the school does not have resources to power these computers nor people to teach students or teachers how to use them. The donation actually result in more harm then help to the community.

b) Odest Chadwicke (Chad) Jenkins, “Robotics: Making the World a Better Place through Minimal Message-oriented Transport Layers .”

While Bernardine tries to change technologies for underserved communities, Chad tries to design interfaces for helping people with disability by deploying robots to their home. Chad showed some of the work done by Charlie Kemp’s group and his lab with Henry Evans. Henry Evans was a successful financial officer at silicon valley until he had a stroke that caused him paralyzed and mute. However, Henry did not give up living fully and strived in advocating robots for people with disability. Henry’s story is inspiring and an example of how robots can help people with disability live freely. The robot for humanity project is the result of these successful collaborations. Since then, Henry gave three Ted talks through robots and the one below shows how Chad helped him fly a quadrotor.

 

However, the highlight of Chad’s talk was when he called out for more diversity in the community. Minorities, especially African Americans and Latinos, are way underrepresented in robotics communities in the U.S. The issue of diversity is usually not what roboticist or computer scientist would thought of or list as a priority. Based on Chad’s numbers, past robotics conferences including RSSs were not immune to these kind of negligence. This not hard to see, among the thousands of conference talks I’ve been to there were probably no more then three talks by African American speakers. Although there are no obvious solutions to solve this problem yet, having the community aware or agree that this is a problem is an important first step. Chad urges people to be aware of whether everyone is given equal opportunities and simply being friendly to isolated minorities in a conference may make a difference in the long run.

c) Rico Jonschkowski, Divyam Rastogi, and Oliver Brock. “Differential Particle Filters.”

This work introduces a differentiable particle filter (DPF) that can be trained end to end. The DPF is composed of a action sampler that generates action samples, an observation encoder, a particle proposer that learns to generate new particles based on observations, and an observation likelihood estimator that weights each particle. These four components are feedforward networks that can be learned through training data. What I found interesting is that the authors made comments similar to the authors of the paper Deep Image Prior; deep learning approaches work not just because of learning but also because of the engineered structure such as convolutional layers that encode priors. This motivated the authors to look for architectures that can encode prior knowledge of algorithms into the neural network.

d) Marc Toussaint, Kelsey R. Allen, Kevin A. Smith, and Joshua B. Tenenbaum. “Differentiable Physics and Stable Modes for Tool-Use and Manipulation Planning.”

Task and Motion Planning (TAMP) approaches are about combining symbolic task planners and geometric motion planners hierarchically. Symbolic task planners can be helpful in solving tasks sequences based on high level logic, while geometric planners operate in detailed specifications of the world state. This work is an extension that further considers dynamic physical interactions. The whole robot action sequence is modeled as a sequence of modes connected by switches. Modes represent durations that have constant contact or can be modeled by kinematic abstractions. The task can therefore be written in the form of a Logic-Geometric Program where the whole sequence can be jointly optimized. The video above show that such approach can solve tasks that the authors call physical puzzles. This work also won the best paper at RSS.

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