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Grand Challenges of Robotics

Last Update: 2020-08-13

And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time, I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you (at Bell Labs) working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! — Richard Hamming, You and your research

What grand challenges do we need to solve to push robotics (and AI) forward? When I thought hard about this question, I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. I’m actually not sure why I never asked myself this question before. Perhaps I’d converged to the “stationary distribution” of traversing only “relevant” research questions. Or maybe it’s a function of the sheer diversity in the different fields of inquiry that robotics supports. This coupled with the fast pace of the field makes it hard to identify key challenges and track progress. Nonetheless, I believe this is an important question to reflect on, not just for personal gratification, but more importantly, to understand how research contributions in one field can ripple across the space of research and affect questions in another field.

I expect this to be a living (and evolving) document as I distill information to reach a clearer understanding. For now, I’m bootstrapping most of the content from [1] and also using the paper as a scaffolding for organization. However, I expect the structure and content of this post to evolve as I read, synthesize, and figure out potentially better ways to organize the information.

While providing links to references + further reading, I’ve made the conscious decision of linking to sources with a high “fan-out”, to enable an easy launching point to read about further research.

I’d appreciate suggestions on content to add, general feedback, and comments!

Table of Contents

AI for Robotics

Biohybrid and bioinspired robots

Brain-computer interfaces

Robot Swarms

Navigation and Exploration

New materials and fabrication schemes

Power and energy

Medical robotics

Social interaction

Ethics and security

General References

[a] AI for Robotics

Goal: learning how to learn, combining advanced pattern recognition and model-based reasoning, and developing intelligence with common sense.


References + Readings

[a1] To Build Truly Intelligent Machines, Teach Them Cause and Effect

[a2] The Book of Why

[a3] Meta-Learning: Learning to Learn Fast

[b] Biohybrid and bioinspired robots

Goal: to translate fundamental biological principles into engineering design rules or integrate living components into synthetic structures to create robots that perform like natural systems.


References + Readings

[b1] Wyss Institute

[b2] Shadow Hand

[c] Brain-computer interfaces

Goal: the seamless control of peripheral neuroprostheses, functional electric stimulation devices, and exoskeletons.


The future:

References + Readings

[c1] Neuralink

[c2] CTRL Labs

[c3] OpenBCI

[d] Robot swarms

Goal: to allow simpler, less expensive, modular units to be reconfigured into a team depending on the task that needs to be performed while being as effective as a larger, task-specific, monolithic robot.


[e] Navigation and exploration

Goal: to navigate an explore extreme environments that are not only unmapped but also poorly understood, with abilities to adapt, to learn, and to recover and handle failures.


The future:

References + Readings

[e1] Probabilistic Robotics

[e2] DARPA SubT Challenge (Tunnels + Mines)

[e3] CMU RadPiper (1), (2) (Nuclear Decommissioning)

[e4] robosub (Underwater Robotics)

[e5] NASA JPL/Caltech (Space Robotics)

[f] New materials and fabrication schemes

Goal: to develop a new generation of robots that are multifunctional, power-efficient, compliant, and autonomous in ways akin to biological organisms.

Examples include artificial muscles, compliant materials for soft robotics, and emerging advanced manufacturing and assembly strategies.


The future:

References + Readings

[f1] There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom

[f2] Multiphoton Lithography

[f3] Stuff Matters (I’ve written a short review of the book here!)

[g] Power and energy

Goal: create new power sources, battery technologies, and energy-harvesting schemes for the long-lasting operation of mobile robots.


The future:

References + Readings

[g1] The complete guide to the battery revolution, Quartz Magazine

[h] Medical robotics

Goal: increasing levels of autonomy but with due consideration of legal, ethical, and technical challenges, as well as micro-robotics tackling real demands in medicine.


The future:

References + Readings

[h1] Intuitive Surgical

[i] Social interaction

Goal: to understand human social dynamics and moral norms and that can be truly integrated with our social life showing empathy and natural social behaviors.


The future:

References + Readings

[i1] HARP Lab, CMU

[i2] InterACT Lab, UC Berkeley

[j] Ethics and security

Goal: to foster responsible innovation in robotics.


References + Readings

[j1] AI Safety Needs Social Scientists

[j2] Concrete Problems in AI Safety

[j3] Future of Humanity Institute

[j4] Center for Human Compatible AI

[j5] Future of Life Institute

[j6] Humans Need Not Apply

General References

[1] The Grand Challenges of Robotics, Yang et al.

[2] robonation

Written August 9, 2020. Send feedback to @bhaprayan.

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