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Monthly Archives: June 2014

6 reads in AI, Robots, Drones and Economics

This is an excellent response to a post by Marc Andreesen – What you left out was the essential question: who owns the robots? (By Alex Payne)

Microsoft Unveils Machine Learning for the Masses (New York Times)

AI’s dueling definition: Why my understanding of AI is different from yours. (O’Reilly Radar)

More Robots won’t mean fewer jobs (Rodney Brooks on Harvard Business Review)

Before you travel to a city why not see how it looks from the air? (Travel By Drone)

Our Work Here is Done: Visions of a Robot Economy (Free eBook by Nesta). Contributors: Ryan Avent, Frances Coppola, Frederick Guy, Nick Hawes, Izabella Kaminska, Tess Reidy, Edward Skidelsky, Noah Smith, E. R. Truitt, Jon Turney, Georgina Voss, Steve Randy Waldman and Alan Winfield.

The economics of Amazon’s delivery drones


Last December there was a lot of skepticism when Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, announced on the 60 minutes TV program that they were looking into using drones for delivering small packages. Many pundits called it a publicity stunt and nonsense! — timed for the biggest online shopping day of the year .

Bezos on the other hand was bemused and took pains to point out in his 2013 annual letter to shareholders that Amazon are serious about delivery by drones, writing: “The Prime Air team is already flight testing our 5th and 6th generation aerial vehicles, and we are in the design phase on generations 7 and 8.”

On their Prime Air Q and A page Amazon anticipate FAA’s rules for commercial drones will: “be in place as early as sometime in 2015.” And state: “We will be ready at that time.”

To be ready they are assembling a team said to already consist of between 45 to 50 employees and at least 10 additional personnel sought according to job openings on Amazon’s website.

Job postings for the Prime Air team range from a Patent Lawyer, to a Communications Manager, Software Engineers, Machine Learning Engineers, Executive Assistant, Project Coordinator, Research Scientist and Technical Program Manager.

To give you a taste of what the company is aiming for, the Communications Manager post indicates:

We’re looking for a communications leader for Amazon Prime Air, a new delivery system that will get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.

So what’s driving Amazon’s Prime Air initiative?

Instant gratification from customers is clearly one element; providing outstanding service is another; as is staying ahead of the curve with innovative delivery and order fulfillment. All highly significant points in their own right to meet Amazon’s goal: “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.”

Cost of transportation is another. Amazon’s total shipping costs in 2013 were $6.635 billion. They received shipping revenue of $3.097 billion and incurred overall losses of $3.538 billion related to shipping costs.

Amazon shipping costs

Amazon use several services for shipping, UPS, FedEx, US Postal, and others as well as developing their own City Pick Up points, delivery van service and Amazon courier cycles. Shipping is clearly a major cost factor to Amazon and one where they are focused on improving service whilst reducing cost.

Technical difficulties

In addition to the regulatory hurdles that must be overcome there are many technical difficulties.

Amazon is aiming for their drones to deliver shoebox size packages.

They probably do not want video onboard due to the extra weight on the drone and also privacy concerns, so will need another way of identification before customers can accept delivery, e.g. biometric identification or pin code to release the package provided with the consignment email – package drop off will be a challenge.

Wind will be a factor in delivery.

Sense and avoid – very few of the current breed of drones (especially the hobbyist drones) have sense and avoid capabilities and should not be flown where there are people or objects.

Amazon will want their drones to be as safe as regular manned planes. Piloted planes have 9.4 accidents per million flights, in other words statistically very safe.

CyPhy Works is possibly the leader in this drone technology with their tethered drones having already developed high payload, high wind, environmentally sealed systems.

GPS lock is an issue that has caused drones to drop out of the air and piloting inexperience is also a major issue, although one the FAA is looking very closely at and I’m sure Amazon will too – drones should never be operated without formal training and some license arrangements.

Another hurdle will be location for dispatch – most of Amazon’s Fulfillment Centers are outside major cities, although it is probable that the items Amazon will provide via Prime Air will be a vastly reduced inventory and kept at the Amazon Pick Up points or smaller Fulfillment Centers closer to major city centers.

These are just a few of the technical hurdles, not insurmountable and as Amazon state they will be ready when the FAA approve the use of commercial drones.

Will drones be more cost effective?

According to shipping-industry analysts Amazon typically pays between about $2 and $8 to ship each package, with the cheapest option through the Postal Service and the most expensive via UPS or FedEx.

Amazon may be able to get a premium price for the Prime Air delivery service – customers who want their package within 30 minutes may be prepared to pay a premium of say $15 to $20 per delivery. Irrational for a book that costs $18, but as behavioral economics shows humans do not always act rationally.

During a 15 hour window (7am to 10pm) one Prime Air drone could potentially make 30 deliveries (absolute maximum efficiency and at a significant stretch).

Assume the drones are fully in service for 360 days per year, this will be the equivalent of 10,800 deliveries per drone.

The drones will require 2 full time pilots. With drone pilot wages ranging between US$13 to US$23 per hour, plus fulfillment center costs, insurances, drone fees and service, the Prime Air Team overheads and development – the annual fees per Prime Air drone service – annual cost per drone could be a minimum of between US$105,000 to $186,000 per year.

Those numbers divided by the maximum number of deliveries per drone indicate that the Prime Air service could cost Amazon between $9.75 and $17.44 per delivery, which is okay if Amazon get a premium rate for 30 minutes delivery.

Amazon will want to get maximum number of deliveries and efficiencies out of the drone capabilities, whilst reducing the costs as close to $2 per delivery as possible and maximizing the revenue by providing the wow factor to customers. They will also be aiming to reduce the US$ 8.829 billion in cumulative shipping losses in the last three years.

At some stage don’t be surprised if Amazon seeks to move into the logistics business. The robots that they are deploying in their fulfillment centers and now with Prime Air Drones, Amazon are clearly building a high quality, high capability logistics service – and ultimately that is good news for consumers.

Photos: Amazon 2013 Annual Report and Amazon Prime Air Q&A

As Helen Greiner, CEO and founder of CyPhy Works says: “The shortest path between two points is as the drone flies.”

Updated: There is an interesting take on this article edited by Business Insider — The 4 reasons Amazon is dead serious about its Drone delivery service.

A chatbot probably did not pass the Turing Test in Artificial Intelligence


Recent headlines have been awash with stories of a computer program ‘disguised’ as a 13 year old Ukrainian boy Eugene Goostman has passed the Turing Test. Similar claims have been made in the past (this paper was shared with me slightly tongue in cheek by Professor Joanna Bryson), indeed a couple of years ago it was claimed that Eugene came ‘close to passing the Turing Test’ when ‘he/it’ was the overall winner in a similar tournament. We will likely here of more programs that have passed the Turing Test in the near future – how close these claims are to the real ‘spirit’ of the Turing Test is certainly very debatable.

Author and Roboticist, Professor Alan Winfield told me he was less than convinced last Saturday’s announcement resulted in the Turing Test being passed, especially as Turing “intended higher thresholds, >5mins, and >30%.” The pass rate claimed in the University of Reading announcement was 33%, just a very narrow pass if Turing really was stuck on the greater than 30% of judges threshold, which is highly unlikely.

In fact Turing does specify 5 minutes but I am in agreement with Alan, he does not indicate how many judges or what percentage. What he says is:

“An average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning.”

Is this the same as the University of Reading and the organizers claim?  “If a computer is mistaken for a human more than 30% of the time during a series of five minute keyboard conversations it passes the test.”

So far very little has been shared about the organization of the event, other than the claim that 30 judges took part and ‘in each five minutes a judge was communicating with both a human and a machine,’ and 33% of judges were convinced that Eugene was human.

At no time does Turing specify in his paper 30 per cent of judges, and I would posit that he would expect the 70 per cent to be nearer the threshold.

To help analyze the number of judges, Turing states:

“A number of interrogators could be used, and statistics compiled to show how often the right identification was given.”

Turing originally set out that the Imitation game should also be based on gender.

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the ‘imitation game.” It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either “X is A and Y is B” or “X is B and Y is A.”

“What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?”  Adding later…  “Could the interrogator distinguish between them?”

It is not clear if the judges in the University of Reading organized event focused on gender, maybe they will clarify this when the ‘peer reviewed’ papers are released which they have referenced.

I am not convinced the Turing Test has been passed although it is fair to say that in recent years we have seen considerable progress towards the goal of a machine that can ‘trick’ judges into thinking it is human or more precisely a woman.

Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London, who is quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying: “I think the claim is completely misplaced, and it devalues real AI research. It makes it seem like science fiction AI is nearly here, when in fact it’s not and it’s incredibly difficult.” Or as Alan Turing himself concluded his famous paper: “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

Turing Test Pass Claimed at Royal Society Event

Alan Turing WikipediaIn a press release by the University of Reading it is claimed the Turing test was passed.

Turing Test Success Marks Milestone in Computing History:

An historic milestone in artificial intelligence set by Alan Turing – the father of modern computer science – has been achieved at an event organised by the University of Reading.

The 65 year-old iconic Turing Test was passed for the very first time by supercomputer Eugene Goostman during Turing Test 2014 held at the renowned Royal Society in London on Saturday 7th June.

‘Eugene’, a computer programme that simulates  a 13 year old boy,  was developed in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The development team includes Eugene’s creator Vladimir Veselov, who was born in Russia and now lives in the United States, and Ukrainian born Eugene Demchenko who now lives in Russia.

The Turing Test is based on 20th century mathematician and code-breaker Turing’s 1950 famous question and answer game, ‘Can Machines Think?’. The experiment investigates whether people can detect if they are talking to machines or humans. The event is particularly poignant as it took place on the 60th anniversary of Turing’s death, nearly six months after he was given a posthumous royal pardon.

If a computer is mistaken for a human more than 30% of the time during a series of five minute keyboard conversations it passes the test. No computer has ever achieved this, until now. Eugene managed to convince 33% of the human judges that it was human.

This historic event was organised by the University’s School of Systems Engineering in partnership with RoboLaw, an EU-funded organisation examining the regulation of emerging robotic technologies.

Professor Kevin Warwick, a Visiting Professor at the University of Reading and Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at Coventry University, said: “In the field of Artificial Intelligence there is no more iconic and controversial milestone than the Turing Test, when a computer convinces a sufficient number of interrogators into believing that it is not a machine but rather is a human. It is fitting that such an important landmark has been reached at the Royal Society in London, the home of British Science and the scene of many great advances in human understanding over the centuries. This milestone will go down in history as one of the most exciting.

“Some will claim that the Test has already been passed. The words Turing Test have been applied to similar competitions around the world. However this event involved the most simultaneous comparison tests than ever before, was independently verified and, crucially, the conversations were unrestricted. A true Turing Test does not set the questions or topics prior to the conversations. We are therefore proud to declare that Alan Turing’s Test was passed for the first time on Saturday.

“Of course the Test has implications for society today. Having a computer that can trick a human into thinking that someone, or even something, is a person we trust is a wake-up call to cybercrime.  The Turing Test is a vital tool for combatting that threat. It is important to understand more fully how online, real-time communication of this type can influence an individual human in such a way that they are fooled into believing something is true…when in fact it is not.”

Eugene was one of five supercomputers battling it for the Turing Test 2014 Prize. On winning the competition and achieving this historic milestone Vladimir Veselov said:

“I want to congratulate everyone who worked on Eugene Goostman. Our whole team is very excited with this result.  It’s a remarkable achievement for us and we hope it boosts interest in artificial intelligence and chatbots. Special thanks to Professor Kevin Warwick and Dr. Huma Shah for their effort in organising the event.

“Eugene was ‘born’ in 2001. Our main idea was that he can claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn’t know everything. We spent a lot of time developing a character with a believable personality. This year we improved the ‘dialog controller’ which makes the conversation far more human-like when compared to programs that just answer questions. Going forward we plan to make Eugene smarter and continue working on improving what we refer to as ‘conversation logic’.”

Among the judges tasked with separating the human and computer participants were the actor Robert Llewellyn, who played robot Kryten in the sci-fi comedy TV series Red Dwarf, and Lord Sharkey, who led the successful campaign for Alan Turing’s posthumous pardon last year.

Professor Warwick concluded: “Not long before he died on 7th June 1954 Alan Turing, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society, predicted that in time this test would be passed. It is difficult to conceive that he could possibly have imagined what computers of today, and the networking that links them, would be like.”


The cost effectiveness and advantages of Robotic Surgery

Cost-Effectiveness of Robotic Surgery

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Marc Andreesen recently indicated on Twitter that: “consumer costs rising most quickly (education, health care) have least tech innovation and least market competition.” Marc’s former partner in Netscape, the serial entrepreneur Jim Clark, founder of Healtheon, which later merged with and became known as WebMD has also been scathing about increased costs and poor innovation in health care. Clark’s vision for improving health care through technology innovation is perhaps best documented in the book The New New Thing by Michael Lewis.

Larry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google, spoke at TED about how advances of sharing medical records (anonymously) could potentially save 100,000 lives in the US alone per year. This is something the tech giants are working on. Dr. Eric Horvitz, who is the managing director of Microsoft Research and specializes in applying artificial intelligence in health care settings told Wired magazine: “Electronic health records [are] like large quarries where there’s lots of gold, and we’re just beginning to mine them.”

IBM’s Watson is also making terrific strides in advances of health related applications, and if it is not, it will soon be the world’s foremost diagnostician of cancer related ailments. Watson is being “trained” to sift through and stay up to date with all of the world’s high-quality published medical information; match it against patients’ symptoms, medical histories, and test results; and formulate both a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

Perhaps the area where tech is having the biggest impact in health is robotic surgery – in both innovation and costs, the two areas highlighted by Marc Andreesen.

There are approximately 25 companies providing electro-mechanical, computer driving surgical devices, or what has become known as Robotic Surgery. The companies ranging from major corporations such as Hitachi, to Hansen Medical Sensei, Mako Surgical, Mazor Robotics and smaller companies like RoboDoc, Endocontrol and Cyberheart, the EU have developed Robocast, or Dr. Robot, the brain surgeon.

Perhaps the leader in Robotic Surgery is Intuitive Surgical a NASDAQ listed company, the manufacturer of the da Vinci Surgical Systems.

At the end of financial year-end 2013, Intuitive Surgical had annual revenue of $2,265 billion and has set its sights on (See 2013 Investor Presentation): ‘long-term revenue potential for current target procedures as $7.2 billion:’ Broken down as follows:

  • Annual Instrument & Accessory Revenue $4.0 Billion
  • Annual System Revenue $1.9 Billion
  • Annual Service Revenue $1.3 Billion

This represents a whopping increase of almost 3.2 times revenue from year-end 2013. It’s not the purpose of this article to consider if that is a realistic target or not, but I certainly applaud the Intuitive Surgical management for setting it and for the impressive work they are doing improving surgical procedures. The point is to show the significant market potential of robotic surgery, and the impressive revenue that Intuitive Surgical is already securing.

The purpose is more to show that robotic surgery is advancing healthcare-technology, saving costs and potentially saving lives.

Robotic surgery

In a 2013 FDA survey, surgeons experienced with the Intuitive Surgical da Vinci system said their patients have less bleeding, fewer complications, much quicker recovery times and less time in the hospital – 24 hours on average. The surgeries were also often completed quicker and cleaner. Another interesting point; those who used the da Vinci robotic system to remove advanced cancer in the tonsils region of the throat said half of their patients were able to avoid chemotherapy.

Cost-effectiveness of Robotic Surgery

It may initially seem that robotic surgery would be more expensive than open surgery as it requires a large initial investment in the order of US$1 million to US$2 million and ongoing annual maintenance costs of approximately of US$250,000, costs that are not present in open surgery. Additionally, robotic surgery requires disposable or limited use instruments (eg, shears, needle drivers, graspers, forceps) with an average cost of approximately US$2,000 per instrument, which are replaced every 10 surgeriesversus the mostly reusable instruments in open surgery. However, reports have shown that the overall hospital costs were significantly lower for robotics compared with traditional surgery, and that, in some cases, the hospital could break even on their robotic investment after as few as 90 surgeries.

Not only is Robotic Surgery already cost-effective for insurance companies and hospitals and a better option for the patients recovery, but as robotic technology expands and improves, as is the case with most other technologies, costs will further decrease – it is only a matter of time before that is passed on to ‘consumers.’

Which to me goes a long way to answering Marc Andreesen’s concerns, although I still share his point that more competition is needed.

The following resources are independent articles and studies showing the cost-efficiencies and positive impact of robotic surgery:

General Robotic

• Epstein, A. J. G., P. W.; Harhay, M. O.; Yang, F.; Polsky, D. (2013). “Impact of Minimally Invasive Surgery on Medical Spending and Employee Absenteeism.” JAMA Surg: 1-7.  View Article


• Bell, M. C. T., J.; Seshadri-Kreaden, U.; Suttle, A. W.; Hunt, S. (2008). “Comparison of outcomes and cost for endometrial cancer staging via traditional laparotomy, standard laparoscopy and robotic techniques.” Gynecologic Oncology 111(3): 407-411. View Article

• Halliday, D. L., S.; Vaknin, Z.; Deland, C.; Levental, M.; McNamara, E.; Gotlieb, R.; Kaufer, R.; How, J.; Cohen, E.; Gotlieb, W. H. (2010). “Robotic radical hysterectomy: comparison of outcomes and cost.” Journal of Robotic Surgery: 1-6. 
View Article

• Hoyte, L. R., R.; Mezzich, J.; Bassaly, R.; Downes, K. (2012). “Cost analysis of open versus robotic-assisted sacrocolpopexy.” Female Pelvic Med Reconstr Surg 18(6): 335-339. View Article

• Landeen, L. B. B., M. C.; Hubert, H. B.; Bennis, L. Y.; Knutsen-Larson, S. S.; Seshadri-Kreaden, U. (2011). “Clinical and cost comparisons for hysterectomy via abdominal, standard laparoscopic, vaginal and robot-assisted approaches.” South Dakota Medicine 64(6): 197-199, 201, 203 passim. View Article

• Lau, S. V., Z.; Ramana-Kumar, A. V.; Halliday, D.; Franco, E. L.; Gotlieb, W. H. (2012). “Outcomes and cost comparisons after introducing a robotics program for endometrial cancer surgery.” Obstetrics and Gynecology 119(4): 717-724. 
View Article

• Reynisson, P. P., J. (2013). “Hospital costs for robot-assisted laparoscopic radical hysterectomy and pelvic lymphadenectomy.” Gynecol Oncol. View Article


• Park, B. J. F., R. M. (2008). “Cost Comparison of Robotic, Video-assisted Thoracic Surgery and Thoracotomy Approaches to Pulmonary Lobectomy.” Thoracic Surgery Clinics 18(3): 297-300. View Article


• Alemozaffar, M. C., S. L.; Kacker, R.; Sun, M.; Dewolff, W. C.; Wagner, A. A. (2012). “Comparing Costs of Robotic, Laparoscopic, and Open Partial Nephrectomy.” J Endourol. View Article

• Cooperberg, M. R. R., N. R.; Duff, S. B.; Hughes, K. E.; Sadownik, S.; Smith, J. A.; Tewari, A. K. (2012). “Primary treatments for clinically localised prostate cancer: a comprehensive lifetime cost-utility analysis.” BJU Int. View Article

• Hohwü, L. B., M.; Ehlers, L.; Venborg Pedersen, K. (2011). “A short-term cost-effectiveness study comparing robot-assisted laparoscopic and open retropubic radical prostatectomy.” Journal of Medical Economics 14(4): 403-409.
View Article

• Martin, A. D. N., R. N.; Castle, E. P. (2011). “Robot-assisted radical cystectomy versus open radical cystectomy: A complete cost analysis.” Urology 77(3): 621-625. View Article

• Morgan, J. A. T., B. A.; Peacock, J. C.; Hollingsworth, K. W.; Smith, C. R.; Oz, M. C.; Argenziano, M. (2005). “Does robotic technology make minimally invasive cardiac surgery too expensive? A hospital cost analysis of robotic and conventional techniques.” J Card Surg 20(3): 246-251. View Article

Picture credit: Intuitive Surgical

EU launches world’s largest civilian robotics programme – 240,000 new jobs expected

The European Commission and 180 companies and research organisations (under the umbrella of euRobotics) have launched the world’s largest civilian research and innovation programme in robotics. Covering manufacturing, agriculture, health, transport, civil security and households, the initiative – called SPARC – is the EU’s industrial policy effort to strengthen Europe’s position in the global robotics market (€60 billion a year by 2020). This initiative is expected to create over 240,000 jobs in Europe, and increase Europe’s share of the global market to 42% (a boost of €4 billion per year). The European Commission will invest €700 million and euRobotics €2.1 billion.

European Commission Vice President @NeelieKroesEU, says: “Europe needs to be a producer and not merely a consumer of robots. Robots do much more than replace humans – they often do things humans can’t or won’t do and that improves everything from our quality of life to our safety. Integrating robots into European industry helps us create and keep jobs in Europe.” (SPEECH/14/421)

President of euRobotics Bernd Liepert says: “SPARC will ensure the competitiveness of European robotics industries. Robot-based automation solutions are essential to overcome today’s most pressing societal challenges – from demographic change to mobility to sustainable production“.

Robotics enables companies to continue manufacturing in Europe, where they might otherwise move operations to lower-cost countries. But the potential of robotics goes far beyond the factory: from helping nurses in hospitals to inspecting dangerous power plants and tedious farm work. Autonomous cars and drones are other examples of robots.


The project is launched at the AUTOMATICA 2014 conference in Munich.

SPARC is open to all European companies and research institutions. The partnership launched today is based on a contract signed with euRobotics aisbl on 17 December 2013 (press release).

The first call for proposals related to SPARC are run under the pillar LEIT – Leadership in Enabling and Industrial Technologies of the new EU research and innovation programme Horizon 2020.

The next funding call will be published in October 2014 with an April 2015 deadline. Stay tuned via @RoboticsEU – find out more about EU support to robotics and examples of funded projects.