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Advances In Computer Vision And AI

April 5, 2011

I sometimes can’t believe the rapid pace of technology advancements in our current age.  It’s exponential.  As most of you know, I’ve been spending most of my free time studying Vision Science, and at other times in particular, Computer Vision.  I’ve posted some neat videos showing the current status of robots and how they’re now able to look out of camera eyes, decode the 3D spatial environment they are located within, and navigate the world around them.  They’re able to understand the objects they’re looking at, how they behave, and at a basic level, organize these objects into “thought”.  It’s pretty remarkable.  I’ve also shown you Watson, and how we’re on the verge of having computers which know all human knowledge, pretty much fully understanding any question you ask them.

Now here’s what blew me away.  I was researching all of this stuff, reading into how the technology works, examining the algorithms the robots use, and so on.  I found out that Intel has developed an entire programming library, fully tested and developed, ready for any developer who wants to create such a robot!  It’s called OpenCV, or Open Computer Vision.  With some programming know-how, using easy to use functions, you can basically build your own Asimo!  The foundations are being laid for huge advancements in robotics.

Now what sorts of routines does this programming library entail?   Say you need to build a robot which can drive or walk around the factory floor, moving goods from point A to B.  No problem.

What else?  OpenCV has routines allowing you to recognize human faces, their gestures, perform stereopsis (achieve depth perception from two different cameras, similar to our eyes), track objects which are moving, identify various objects it sees (such as a coffee mug, or a tv remote control), contour and other forms of image analysis, and more.  Basically, most everything you see Asimo doing can be built by just about anybody.  All that technology people have been developing over the past 30~40 years is now open source and available to anyone.  That’s right — absolutely free.

I started reading a book on how to program using OpenCV and I was blown away.  We often hear about a future day when robots with advanced artificial intelligence work our assembly lines and do our work for us.  It turns out that factories all over are starting to use OpenCV and are constructing robots which can see objects coming down the conveyor belt, identifying faulty products and yanking them off the line.  This same library helps developers quickly and easily program the robots to do assembly tasks and other forms of tedious grunt work.

This is the sort of thing which explodes.   To construct robots which can see requires a huge investment of time and money because the algorithms are extremely complicated to develop.  It’s a huge barrier to entry.  Now optimized routines are available to any developer wanting to build robots.  To build technology like this from scratch, you’d basically have to be a genius.  Now you just have to be a half-way component computer programmer with basic robotics know-how.

But robots don’t need to be anything like Asimo.  Imagine if you’re hiking outdoors and want to bring a lot of equipment with you.  It’s all very heavy and you don’t want to carry it.  Robots now can carry loads for you, and with animal like legs they’re able to navigate extremely difficult terrain.  Robots like these can be programmed with OpenCV, and if you combine it with some other routines for voice recognition, you can speak out commands such as “Stop”, or “Follow Me”, or “Wait here”, and it will do as you say.  It will be able to follow you by identifying you based on your appearance and tracking your movements out of its camera eyes.  If someone else comes up to it and says, “Follow me”, it won’t listen. Its cameras eyes will look up at the person and the robot will identify, “You’re not my master.” This stuff is neat.  The robot in the video below is a bit noisy because it uses gas power and not electric batteries.  Another major advancement we need is better power sources, but that will come in time, I’m sure.

I do have my worries though.  Super markets are using OpenCV and are placing cameras throughout the store.  Currently their main purpose is simply to count the number of people entering and leaving the stores.  However, these cameras theoretically have the capability to identify who you are by using complex facial recognition routines.  This then could go into a database and they know how often you shop there, who you were with, and everything.  Combine this with a computer database of all your past purchases and we have a privacy nightmare.  I decided to write this post to let people know what’s out there.  This technology can be used for amazing things, and it can be used to free us from having to do every form of tedious labor, but it can also lead to a police state more horrific than anything you’ve ever imagined.  People need to be aware of this technology and what it can do.

When I look up and see cities all across America installing cameras like this, I find myself very very worried.   I don’t think many people realize what these cameras can do now.  Computers now are capable of analyzing the images these cameras are sending them, processing the information, and could watch our every move.  This stuff is advancing at a rate so fast, nobody can keep up with it all.  If this is used against us, we don’t stand a chance.  For example, imagine if cameras were placed all around you – in the stores, along the streets, and in the parks.  Imagine a world where no matter where you go, you’re being watch by advanced AI.  All of the cameras could be wired into one super-brain, knowledgeable of basically everything going on — where everyone is, what they’re doing, who they’re with….  Sssccarrryyy.   In the not too distance future, they could also have cameras mounted in cars which themselves are driven by this same sort of AI.  Robots like Asimo are policing you everywhere, programmed to enforce whatever laws the “high ups” desire without conscience.  I don’t like it.  This isn’t science fiction, it’s right around the corner.

It’s one of my dreams to see a world where robots relieve us from all toilsome labor.  I’ll actually see robots doing super-advanced things during my lifetime.  Question is, how do we make sure this same technology doesn’t enslave us?

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