The GPU Technology Conference isn't just about graphics cards — it's also where Nvidia and its partners demonstrate new and disruptive technologies that have the potential to change how humans live. This year, a big part of this centred around robotics, with scores of fully autonomous gizmos pottering about the showroom floor. Here are our favourite robo-innovations — from navigational 3D mapping platforms that help robots see to mechanised office assistants that want to steal our jobs.
Paracosm: Autonomous robots
Paracosm is a middleware 3D mapping application that allows robots to navigate interior spaces with the confidence of a human. What’s really cool about this platform is that it works on a normal Android smartphone – the user simply scans an enclosed space with their phone’s camera and then uploads the data into their robot.
The commercial possibilities this opens up for robotics are obvious: from robot vacuum cleaners that actually work to personal shopping assistants that follow patrons around the store. In short, the machines won't need sophisticated sensors and cameras to successfully navigate their surroundings.
Paracosm CEO Amir Rubin compared his platform to Prometheus bringing fire to humans – it will essentially give robots “eyes” and stop them from groping around in the dark. (For a less romantic analogy, think of it as the robotic equivalent of Google Maps: it will allow them to get from point A to point B without even thinking about it.)
The company showed off a demonstration of the technology on the GTC showroom floor. It involved a miniature land rover moving around in a lunar-style landscape without bumping into anything. Pretty impressive for an app that fits on your smartphone!
Robotbase: Standing desk robot
Robotbase is the company behind a "smart" standing desk that is essentially a table-shaped robot. While the main unit is little more than a mechanised standing desk, it comes with an inbuilt office assistant that can do everything from read out your emails to order a taxi when you clock off from work. The concept is quite similar to Jibo (see below), although this version is geared towards business professionals instead of family units.
Powered by Tegra K1 and deep learning algorithms, it will recognise its owner's face and converse with them throughout the day. If Robotbase can be believed, it will even be able to analyse business data and provide insights during boardroom meetings. Hmm.
Somewhat disturbingly, the platform can also be used to replace front-desk workers entirely. According to Robotbase co-founder Justin Lucas, companies are already seeking to install Robotbase desks in place of pesky humans.
"We've been in discussions with people in the medical care industry who are trying to cut costs because of Obamacare," Lucas explained to us. "One of the clinics we spoke to had a receptionist who just checks patients in and calls them up to remind them about their appointment. Our virtual desk assistant can do all of that. So it's going to save them $60,000 a year including health benefits.
"I'm not actively pitching it like that, but it's definitely going to help businesses save money." Brrr...
Pricing for the personal desk robot starts at $US995.
Drive PX: Self-steering cars
Do self-driving cars count as robots? The Macquarie Dictionary defines robot thusly: "a mechanical self-controlling apparatus designed to carry out a specific task, which would normally be performed by a human." So that'd be a yes then.
Pictured above is the Audi A7 concept car which recently steered itself from San Francisco to Las Vegas using Nvidia's self-driving car platform; Drive PX. The board is powered by two Tegra X1 processors and comes with 10GB of DRAM; enough to handle data from up to 12 cameras simultaneously.
The combination of deep learning training, over-the-air updates and surround Computer Vision (CV) technology allows the car to see, think and learn unassisted. Indeed, continued deep learning architecture will result in vehicles that can react to every conceivable driving situation far more efficiently than a human driver.
"Driving isn't about detecting, it’s about learned behaviour," Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang explained during his keynote address. “How do you teach a baby to play ping pong? Teaching it physics is one way — or you could just show them by hitting a couple of balls in front of them and then putting a bat in their hands. Every time they hit the ball correctly, you reinforce the behaviour.
"It might sound crazy, but teaching a baby to play ping pong and teaching a car to drive itself are actually quite similar."
Developers can pick up the Drive PX kit in May for a cool $10,000. In other words, the first commercial self-driving car is a lot closer than you might think.
Jibo: Family robot
Jibo is being billed as the world’s first family-friendly robot. It’s essentially a Siri-style personal assistant housed inside a cute toy. Although stationary, the unit is capable of looking around and interacting with its owners via a motorised neck and face-mounted camera.
At launch, Jibo will come with a range of inbuilt services – examples include taking photos unassisted with its face-recognising camera, telling bedtime stories complete with interactive pictures and giving spoken calendar reminders. Here's a concept video to give you an idea of what it can do:
As impressive as this is, Jibo's full potential won't come out of the box. Instead, it will be realised through third-party applications. Just like a tablet or smartphone, the platform can be customised and built upon by simply downloading new apps and OS updates.
We spoke to Jibo's head research scientist Doctor Cynthia Breazeal about the potential of this product to become a mainstream fixture in family households. According to Breazeal, one of the most important aspects of the design process was getting the voice right; something she think they successfully nailed.
"It needs to have an appealing voice and a lot of time and effort has been placed into creating that voice. It now sounds a little different to the version in our video: it still sounds like a robot which is what you want: if it was trying to sound like a human it would be creepy. [We've tried] to hit a sweet spot that will appeal to both children and adults."
Naturally, accessories will be a big part of the Jibo business plan moving forward.
"You can bet that people will want to customise and accessories their Jibo so we'll definitely be looking to support that." I'll take one in black with a malevolent red eye, please.
The entry-level model will sell for a quite reasonable $US599.
Gizmodo travelled to GTC 2015 in San Jose, California, as a guest of Nvidia.