June 24, 2021
In the Near Future Where AI and Robots have Evolved, People Can Live More Human-Like Lives [Part I]
AI and robotics are two crucial fields for building a new society going forward. Although the terms for these fields have become commonplace, many of us may not know what AI actually does for us or how robots relate to our lives. In this two-part series of articles, we will explain AI and robots through an interview with key figures in the field of AI.
For this third installment, the entrepreneur and futurist Kazuya Ogawa interviewed Mai Nishimura, a research engineer at OMRON SINIC X Corporation,*¹ and also Yoshitaka Ushiku and Felix von Drigalski, who conducted the interview in previous articles. In this interview, we will deepen our understanding of the changes that will happen to humans once AI is implemented in society, and the future scope of AI.
*¹ A strategic base that creates OMRON's vision of "near-future design."
1st: AI Is Already Beside Us [Part I][Part II]
2nd: Robots and AI That Will Support Us in the Future
3rd: In the Near Future Where AI and Robots have Evolved, People Can Live More Human-Like Lives [Part I][Part II]
The Importance of AI for Robotics Research
Kazuya Ogawa (Ogawa): I know that AI is a very broad field, so could you start off by explaining your research?
Yoshitaka Ushiku (Ushiku): I primarily engage in research on image recognition AI. This involves things like understanding images and video in an objective way using words that are easy for humans to understand or recognizing images and video that match specific words. In previous research in image recognition, machine learning is used only to identify where the person was in the picture. In addition to this, my research also includes how AI can think about what text a human would use to describe a certain image when it sees it.
Felix von Drigalski (Felix): My research involves a combination of robots and AI. In addition to robot's programmed movement, robots can reproduce actions to achieve a preset goal using AI, even if the surrounding environment or circumstances change.
For example, it is a difficult task for robotic arms to manipulate transparent or soft objects, or even objects that are just slightly different in size or shape. We are conducting research to enable robots to learn and flexibly respond to different situations on their own by using AI.
Mai Nishimura (Nishimura): My research involves a navigation system for robots combined with AI. For robots to reach their destination in an environment where people are involved, AI is being used to help them make decisions by deriving the optimal path according to the constantly changing environment around it.
Ogawa: You are involved with robots that move autonomously according to the surrounding environment and conditions. What is the difference between your research, and Dr. von Drigalski's?
Nishimura: My research combines the field of computer vision research with robotics, so that robots can understand their surroundings, human behavior and other movements using their "eyes" just like people or animals.
Mai Nishimura, OMRON SINIC X Corporation
Ogawa: What challenges are there in achieving research that combines AI and robots?
Felix: Unlike research that can all be done on a computer, robotics experiments often need a lot of trial and error. That is a challenge.
Nishimura: Similarly, in robot navigation, the robot needs to actually move in order to learn, and it takes a huge amount of time to gather data about random human motion and optimal path data. This makes it very tough.
I am conducting a research to build a simulated environment that mimics the behavior of people in the real world so that we can train and evaluate robots inside this environment. However, I face another challenge regarding the approach for taking AI trained in this simulated environment and implementing it in a real environment.
Felix: In that respect, robotics is tougher than research in AI for understanding natural language. With experiments using a smart speaker for example, you can just ask the question again if the system fails. However, if a robot makes a mistake, it might break something. Running experiments with robots involves more cost, time to set up and physical hardware, so it cannot be done in a carefree manner.
Creating an Environment Where Humans and Robots Coexist
Ogawa: What direction do you think AI research will take?
Ushiku: I think that research that covers both AI and robotics will continue to progress forward.
Robotics technology in Japan has a relatively strong international presence, and I think new technologies will emerge. For example, robotics societies of Japan hold international conferences together with the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).*²
Meanwhile, the United States serves as the center for AI. Together with China, it has a very strong international presence. I feel that Japan still has a long way to go in the field of AI.
Ogawa: Why is it necessary to have research in both robotics and AI, rather than engaging in just one of these fields?
Nishimura: I think that by pursuing research in both fields, we can realize a world where robots blend into people's lives, and where robots are a familiar presence and can act autonomously using AI without people needing to give them orders. I think that robots will be able to successfully work actively as entities that accentuate humans' functions and physical abilities. We have seen players in the world of shogi and go develop their skills by facing AI opponents. It is intriguing to consider that AI software serves as an important partner to people.
Felix: I agree. I believe that combining robots and AI will allow us to realize a world where robots can do many more tasks compared to today, and also perform ones that humans are not good at.
Ogawa: As research in robotics and AI progresses, we can expect robots to be a more familiar part of our lives.
Nishimura: Yes, that's right. As we move toward a world where humans and robots coexist, I think that we will see the emergence of the concept "robot-friendly" to follow after "barrier-free." This concept means creating an environment where robots can move freely, as opposed to robots needing to adapt to the environment where humans live. I feel that efforts in this direction would help robots being installed in homes sooner.
Factories are built with the assumption that robots will be deployed there. There are flow paths prescribed for robots, or rails on the ceiling so that robotic arms can be operated.
Ushiku: In factories and other places where robots and humans can do the same things to a certain extent, people tend to move in a way that allows robots to move easily, and robots become able to move in a smarter way as a result. In this way, I feel that there is a collaboration between humans and machines, whereby the machines help humans grow but humans also help the machines grow and assist them.
Ogawa: I can see that a key concept here is for robots to blend into society.
*² An academic research association and technical standards organization headquartered in the United States for electronic engineering and electrical engineering
AI will be vital for creating a society where robots can coexist with humans in the near future. To this end, it is crucial to achieve progress in research covering robotics, AI, image recognition and many other fields going forward.
In Part II of this interview, we will be explaining how AI and robots will interact with humans further in the future, as well as details on the unique vision held by these three researchers who conduct research on AI and robotics at OMRON SINIC X Corporation.
OMRON SINIC X Corporation
Dr. Ushiku completed his doctorate at the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology of the University of Tokyo in 2014 and joined NTT Communication Science Laboratories. After working as a lecturer at his alma mater in 2016, he was appointed as a principal investigator at OMRON SINIC X Corporation in October 2018. He has been the Chief Research Officer of Ridge-i Inc. since 2019. He primarily studies cross-media understanding by machine learning, such as image caption generation.
Felix von Drigalski
OMRON SINIC X Corporation
Dr. Drigalski graduated from both KIT (Germany) and INSA Lyon (France) in 2013 (Dipl.-Ing. and Ingenieur diplômé (mechanical engineering). In 2018, he completed his doctorate at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology Robotics Laboratory (Informatics). After working for AIST, Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, he was appointed senior researcher at OMRON SINIC X Corporation in October 2018. He primarily engages in research on robotics, including robotic manipulation, planning and automated assembly.
OMRON SINIC X Corporation
She received her master's degree from Kyoto University in 2015 and joined NTT Service Innovation Laboratories. After working as a senior software engineer at Fixstars Corporation from 2017 to 2019, she later joined OMRON SINIC X corporation as a research engineer. She has been enrolled in the doctoral program in Kyoto University since 2020, while working at OMRON SINIC X. She primarily engages in research on crowd-aware robot navigation.
Entrepreneur / Futurist
CEO, Grand Design Co., Ltd.
Visiting Professor at Hokkaido University
After graduating from the Department of Politics at the Faculty of Law in Keio University (Quantitative Political Science), Mr. Ogawa developed new markets using creative ideas as an entrepreneur, while also offering advice as a futurist about how things will be like going forward based on deep and multifaceted analysis regarding technology. He has written many books including Will Digital Take Humans Away? (Kodansha) and The Human Way of Thinking for the Future (Kirakusha).