Worldwide News With Ray – December 7, 2015
(CNN)President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address to the country Sunday did little to impress one of his loudest critics in the race to replace him.
In a rare prime-time speech, Obama called the shootings in San Bernardino, California, an “act of terrorism.” He prodded Congress to adopt new restrictions on assault weapons and ban people who are on no-fly lists from purchasing firearms.
And he urged Americans against associating terrorism with all Muslims — even as he said that extremism in some communities is “a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.”
GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who had promised to live-tweet the speech, came to the quick conclusion, “We need a new President – FAST!”
The real estate mogul had little else to say other than, “Is that all there is?”
In other tweets, Trump excused Obama for reading a prepared speech off of a teleprompter, but said he hoped Obama wouldn’t criticize Second Amendment gun rights.
After Obama’s speech, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called Obama “completely overwhelmed” by the terrorism threat in a Fox News appearance.
Rubio also said Obama was “cynical” for spending time urging Americans not to discriminate against Muslims.
“Where is the evidence that we have widespread discrimination against Muslims?” he said.
And he blasted Obama’s focus on gun control.
“The notion that a radical jihadist who is on a no-fly list is going to walk into a local gun shop to purchase a gun is absurd,” Rubio said.
Republican Ben Carson called Obama’s speech “strange.”
“President Obama’s declaration tonight that his policies are working was strange,” Carson said in a statement. “Strange that it took four days from the attack to respond and even more strange that somehow the attack on our soil is proof his policies are working. One must wonder who has contained who.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz responded to Obama by taking aim at the immigration system.
“If I am elected President, I will direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS. And I will shut down the broken immigration system that is letting jihadists into our country,” he said in a statement. “Nothing President Obama said tonight will assist in either case.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the struggle against ISIS “the war of our time.”
“We need to remove the self-imposed constraints President Obama has placed on our intelligence community and military, and we need to put in place an aggressive strategy to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism as I have proposed,” he said.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul used his statement to criticize Obama’s calls for gun control reforms and also took aim at the U.S. immigration system.
“We should not double down on this failed and dangerous policy that the President called for tonight,” he said in a statement. “We must arm our allies, the Kurds, and insist on Arab boots on the ground for our allies in the region.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another 2016 contender, said Obama’s strategy “is not enough.”
“Bolder action across the board is needed because our way of life is what’s at stake,” said Kasich in a statement. “Also, when terrorists threaten us, our response can’t be to target our own constitutional rights. Our rights aren’t the problem, our unwillingness to act to defeat extremists is the problem. We need to decisively and aggressively protect our nation and our ideals.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also blasted Obama’s speech.
“We will defeat ISIS but we cannot do so by continuing the current approach. The path laid out by President Obama and supported by Hillary Clinton has not worked, and ISIS has only gained in strength,” Priebus said in a statement. “The attacks in San Bernardino should serve as a wake-up call for Obama and Clinton that the way to victory is not through the status quo but refocusing our efforts to defeat ISIS.”
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have yet to comment on the President’s remarks.
B LACKLISTED News
Europe is about to change forever, Marine Le Pen’s National Front party is on course for a historic result in regional elections on Sunday, winning more than 30 per cent of the vote and leading the country’s two mainstream parties. Our words from the day after the Paris attacks, when Le Pen called for “eradication” of Muslims and demanded the nation “re-arm itself,” seem extraordinarlity prophetic now “if there is one ‘winner’ from last night’s terrible events in Paris, it is France’s anti-EU, anti-immigration far-right wing Front Nationale party leader Marine Le Pen.”
As Bloomberg headlines show, exit polls have FN in a significant lead…
- *NATIONAL FRONT LEADS FRENCH REGIONAL VOTE, IPSOS SAYS
- *FRANCE’S NATIONAL FRONT TAKES 30.8% OF NATIONAL VOTE: IFOP
- *FRANCE’S REPUBLICANS TAKE 27.2% OF NATIONAL VOTE: IFOP
- *FRANCE’S SOCIALIST PARTY TAKES 22.7% OF NATIONAL VOTE: IFOP
Le Pen is over the moon…
As The FT reports, in the first test of public opinion since the November 13 terrorist attacks, Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration party looked set to notch up its best result since it was founded in 1972…
President François Hollande’s Socialists and leftwing allies had just 22.3 per cent of the vote while former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right bloc had 26.4 per cent, according to the preliminary figures.
Victory in at least one of France’s 13 regions – definitive results will only be known after next Sunday’s second-round vote – would be a first for the FN, helping to build momentum as it looks to the 2017 presidential contest.
Opinion polls before the vote suggested the party could come top in as many as six of France’s 13 regions in Sunday’s first round.
The election, to be completed in a second round next Sunday, will decide the make-up of regional governments, which have power over issues such as local transport, airports, ports and some schools.
The result provides a sense of the national political mood barely 18 months before the presidential election.
“Taking control of even a single region in these elections would be an unprecedented achievement,” said James Shields, professor of French politics at Aston University.
“This is the first test of public political opinion since the terrorist attacks of 13 November. It’s also the last opportunity to gauge the standing of political parties and potential candidates some 16 months before the critical presidential elections of 2017.
“Though essentially about regional governance, these elections are important as a barometer of the political climate in France as we begin to near the end of President Hollande’s term of office.”
Mr Hollande, whose Socialist party holds 12 of the 13 regions, has seen his popularity rise from record lows since the attacks… but Le Pen’s success will force an uncomfortable alliance…
* * *
Founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, the FN has long been associated with anti-Semitism. As recently as April this year, Mr Le Pen, father of Marine, sparked a family feud as he defended a past comment that Nazi gas chambers were “a detail” of history.
But Ms Le Pen, the party’s leader since 2011, has tried to “detoxify” the FN’s image and to bring it more into the mainstream. As part of that process, she has started to push other policies such as abandoning the euro in favour of the franc and giving the state an even bigger role as a promoter — and protector — of national industry. Those ideas have gone down well in a country where economic growth has remained sluggish in recent years, and where unemployment is at record highs. The FN’s popularity has soared in the north of the country, an industrial region particularly affected by France’s economic plight.
Finland’s government is drawing up plans to give every one of its citizens a basic income of 800 euros (£576) a month and scrapbenefits altogether.
The proposal would entitle each Finn to 800 euros tax free each month, which according to Bloomberg, would cost the government 52.2 billion euros a year.
The country’s government will make a final decision on the plan in November 2016.
Exactly a week ago, we warned that Turkey does have one trump card when it comes to dealing with an angry Russian bear that’s hell bent on making life miserable for Ankara in the wake of Erdogan’s brazen move to shoot down a Russian Su-24 near the Syrian border. Turkey, we explained, could move to close the Bosphorus Strait, cutting one of Moscow’s key supply lines to Latakia.
We went on to explain, that such a move would probably be illegal based on the 1936 Montreux Convention, but as Sputnik noted, “in times of war, the passage of warships shall be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish government.”
Obviously, Turkey and Russia haven’t formally declared war on one another, but the plane “incident” marked the first time a NATO member has engaged a Russian or Soviet aircraft in more than six decades and given the gravity of that escalation, one would hardly put it past Erdogan to start interfering with Moscow’s warships, especially if it means delaying their arrival in Syria where the Russians are on the verge of restoring an Assad government that’s Turkey despises.
Well sure enough, the tit-for-tat mutual escalation that’s ensued since the Su-24 crash has spilled over into the maritime arena with Moscow and Ankara detaining each other’s ships.
After five Turkish vessels were held at the port of Novorossiysk for “inspections,” Turkey retaliated on Friday by holding four Russian ships at the Black Sea port of Samsun. The following table reveals a hilarious list of the Russian vessels’ alleged infractions which apparently include fire safety violations, pollution prevention violations, and problems with “life saving appliances.”:
One of the vessels – the cargo ship Crystal – has yet to be released.
“Six ships with a Russian flag were checked at Samsun Port on Dec. 5. The ships were found to be in compliance with Port State Control (PSC) rules, a series of international standards that all ships are required to meet, but some problems were subsequently detected in four of the ships,” Hurriyet says, adding that “three of the ships consequently met the requirements and were permitted to leave, but the remaining vessel has not yet been permitted to depart.”
The Crystal apparently lacks the “required documents.”
Obviously, Russia and Turkey are engaged in a bit of petty mutual escalation here, but it’s worth noting that Samsun isn’t far from the Bosphorus:
And while Turkey now appears content to harrass Russian cargo vessels, one shouldn’t discount the possibility that Erodgan will look to do something more provocative now that it looks like the UN will ultimately be dragged into the ISIS oil smuggling debate.
Indeed, Moscow seems to be taking the Bosphorus issue quite seriously because as Hurriyet reported just hours ago, when the Russian warship Caesar Kunikov made its way through the strait on Saturday, a Russian soldier stood on deck with a shoulder ground-to-air missile at the ready.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s response: “For a Russian soldier to display a rocket launcher or something similar while passing on a Russian warship is a provocation. If we perceive a threatening situation, we will give the necessary response.”” Indeed.
And meanwhile, three NATO warships have dropped anchor off Istanbul’s Sarayburnu coast: Portugal’s F-334 NRP Francisco de Almeida, Spain’s F-105 ESPS Blaz de Lezo, and Canada’s FFG-338 HMCS Winnipeg.
Last week, the US experienced what is now widely reported to be the worst terrorism-driven mass killing in the US since 9/11; yesterday terrorism allegedly spread to London which had so far been insulated from any Islamic State-related events; just one thing was missing to push the global panic envelope to the “September 11 flashback” redzone in a month that started with the mass murder of dozens of people in Paris and has gotten progressively worse since:airplane terrorism.
The reaction to the San Bernardino shooting in which 14 people were killed and several more wounded is a textbook case of confirmation bias. The first reactions came from the liberal wing of the Twittersphere, heavily represented by “mainstream” journalists, who immediately took the incident to be a classic “mass shooting” of the Sandy Hook-Columbine variety, and it didn’t take long for the finger-wagging to begin. At once pro-gun control and anti-religious, the meme went out into cyberspace: “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough, we need to crack down on gun ownership in this country. The front page of the New York Daily Newsexpressed the left-liberal party line: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS: As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.”
As it turned out, however, the guns used by Syed Farook and Tashveen Malik, the two perpetrators, were bought legally – and their weaponry consisted of a lot more than mere guns. The editors of the Daily News didn’t wait for the facts because they didn’t care about the facts. They just wanted to make a point – one which turned out to be not only wrong but also completely beside the point.
In the same city, in the offices of a very similar – if ideologically opposite – tabloid, the editors of the New York Postwere jumping the gun in an entirely different direction. As the ethnicity and religious affiliation of the attackers came out, they ran with a simple two-word headline: “MUSLIM KILLERS,” with a modifying qualifier: “Terror eyed as couple slaughters 14 in Calif.” As more information came out, however, the editors pulled back, and the final edition was quite different: “MURDER MISSION,” read the headline, with a neutral supplementary: “Shooters slaughter 14 in Calif.”These two editions were published hours after the incident, and only a few hours apart – a testament to the dangers of jumping to conclusions.
This reversal is explained by the subsequent release of yet more information about the perpetrators: Syed Farook worked at the San Bernardino Department of Public Health, which had rented a room at the facility where the massacre took place. The event was a holiday party, which Farook attended, but left early after a reported altercation of some kind. He returned with Malik, his wife, armed to the teeth, and the slaughter commenced.
These facts would appear to point in a different direction entirely from the scenario painted by the Post‘s initial edition, and so the imagery conjured by the new headline went from that of the rampaging “Muslim Killers” to the “Murder Mission” of what appeared to be a case of workplace violence.
That’s what I thought around midnight last night, when I tweeted my tentative opinion that the workplace violencescenario seemed to be the most likely. My main reason was the nature of the target: why, I asked, would terrorists choose the Christmas party of the San Bernardino Public Health Department as the latest object of their wrath?In addition, reports of a dispute at the event involving Farook seemed to indicate that scenario: he got angry, came back, and started shooting. There were also reports of “turmoil” inside the department where he worked; several people had left amid rumors of disputes with management, and the fact that Farooq and his accomplice were targeting a very specific group of people – and not, say, a military facility, or even a soft target like a mall – seemed to corroborate this conclusion.
However, as more facts came out, this explanation began to make less sense. To begin with, a bomb – actually, three bombs taped together – had been left behind at the scene of the shooting. The bomb was linked to a device found in Farook’s rental car – rented three days prior – that was very similar to the jury-rigged remote-controlled IEDs recommended by al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, which detailed how to make an explosive device with readily available materials. We don’t yet know why the bomb failed to go off,.
Although reports that the couple came into the venue wearing body armor and Go-Pro body cameras turned out to be false, they were wearing “tactical” clothing, i.e. vests that enabled them to carry large amounts of ammunition. And indeed they were carrying huge amounts, enough to let them reload on the scene, and continue firing up to seventy-five rounds for over 30 seconds. This accounts for the large number of casualties.
Furthermore, the discovery of twelve “pipe-bomb type” devices, hundreds of tools for making more, and “thousands” of rounds of ammunition in the Redlands home rented by Farooq and his wife eliminates the workplace violence scenario. This was, in effect, a bomb-making factory, and neighbors indicate that a number of people were involved: packages were received throughout the day, and activity was observed into the night. One of these neighbors claims they were ready to contact law enforcement but hesitated to do so for fear of being accused of “racial profiling.” Both Farooq and his bride were of Pakistani extraction.
Two factors indicating that this was indeed a terrorist cell carrying out a pre-planned operation, and not a disgruntled employee intent on revenge against his co-workers, are plain enough: 1) The couple dropped off their child at a relative’s house the day before the attack, claiming to have a doctor’s appointment, and 2) The tactics utilized in the shooting of the victims and the gunfight with the police — which included throwing a fake pipe bomb out of their car as the cops pursued them – are evidence of some kind of military training. Such training could have occurred during Farooq’s trips to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
And we are beginning to hear evidence of international contacts with “more than one” terrorist suspect under surveillance by law enforcement. All that’s missing – as of this writing – is a claim of responsibility by some overseas terrorist outfit.
Yet questions remain: again, the target – a holiday party in a small city – hardly seems like the sort ISIS or al-Qaeda would zero in on. Clearly the couple were planning on a much larger operation, but this plan was changed by something that triggered Farooq to act sooner. And we still don’t have the whole picture: there could conceivably be some new information that could alter our whole perception of what motivated Farooq and Malik.
Which brings me to my point: our perception of the facts is shaped – and altered – by our preconceptions. In short, people believe what they want to believe – and the facts be damned. In this case, major media organizations didn’t wait for the facts to come in before they pronounced judgment. They simply rushed into print with what were little more than editorials, bereft of any responsibility to their readers or the truth.
This is why those who proclaim that bias is inherent in all journalism, and that there’s no such thing as objective reporting, are dangerously wrong. Yes, we’re all human; yes, everyone has opinions. But some people wait for the facts to come in before giving vent to those opinions, while others don’t bother with such niceties.
The reality, as I see it, and given what we know now, is this: San Bernardino was an act of terrorism that may or may not have been directed from overseas. The implications of that are very grave for those of us who oppose our crazed foreign policy of perpetual war, and the relentless assault on our civil liberties on the home front.
The pressure to “destroy them over there before they strike us over here” is going to increase a hundred-fold.The advocates of universal surveillance are going to be empowered as never before. That these tactics haven’t worked in the past – and, indeed, have backfired badly – won’t deter the usual suspects from insisting that war and repression are the answers to the problem of terrorism.
Our answer to the War Party must be that their strategy has failed: the terrorists couldn’t recruit anyone if we weren’t over there bombing what remains of their cities and seeking to impose our will on a populace that will never accept our domination, no matter how many soldiers we send and bombing sorties we launch.
As for the authoritarians who want to use incidents like the San Bernardino attack as a pretext to abolish the Constitution and institute a regime of total surveillance and outright repression: where was their vaunted surveillance system in this case? We didn’t detect this plot – and perhaps that’s because watching everyone, and collecting everyone’s information, blinds us to the real villains hiding in our midst. Then again, perhaps ferreting out villains isn’t the real purpose of government spying.
After the 9/11 attacks, the nation was swept by a wave of war hysteria, and concern for basic civil liberties went right out the window: we will doubtless experience a similar phenomenon in the days and months to come. Yet we are confident that when the history of our era is written, the advocates of peace and liberty will be vindicated, while the War Party will be discredited and disdained by future generations. We must live in the future, in a sense, in order to fight for the future – if there is to be one, that is
Less than a week after the San Bernardino shooting, the ghost of ISIS terrorism has finally landed in London, where moments ago news broke that a man wielding a machete screamed “this is for Syria” before slashing a person’s throat at London’s Leytonstone subway station, and attacking up to three people.
The following video of the incident was released on Twitter hours ago, and shows a large pool of blood spattered across the ticket hall before the alleged knifeman is Tasered by a Met Police officer.
The Express released the following pictures of what it has dubbed the “Syria revenge” stabbing:
As the Telegraph reports, police were called to Leytonstone station after reports of a stabbing in the ticket hall on Saturday at around 7pm. The alleged assailant was promptly tasered by police at the scene.
Terrified passengers, some with children, can be seen running across the east London Tube station away from the scene.
As recounted by the Guardian, one person, who claims to have witnessed the attack, took to social media to reveal details of the horror.
Laurynas Godvisa said: “So as I was going to Leytonstone station was dressed to go to Christmas dinner with people from work.
“As I walked down I just saw a lot of people running but I ignored it and kept walking to get my train, but suddenly what I saw I couldn’t believe my eyes and what I saw was a guy with a knife and a dead guy on the floor.
“I was so scared I ran for my life. After good 10-15 police came and got the guy and arrested him.
“And as he was coming out this is what he said: ‘This is what happens when you f*** with mother Syria all of your blood will be spilled’.”
A Met Police spokesman confirmed the incident saying that “Police were called at 19:06 hrs on Saturday, 5 December, to reports of a stabbing at Leytonstone underground station. The male suspect was reportedly threatening other people with a knife.
“Met officers attended the scene. A man was arrested at 19:14 hrs and taken to an east London police station where he remains in custody. A Taser was discharged by one of the Met officers.”
“Officers from British Transport Police are now dealing with the incident at the scene. We are aware of one man having sustained serious stab injuries. We await details of any other injuries.”
So far there is little news on the condition of the victim of the attack: one victim is in a serious condition with multiple stab wounds and it is believed up to two others may also have been injured.
A spokeswoman from London Ambulance Service said: “We were called at 7:09pm to reports of an assault at Leytonstone underground station We sent a number of resources to the including our joint response unit, an incident response officer, an ambulance crew and London’s Air Ambulance to the scene. We treated a man for stab wounds. He was taken as a priority to hospital escorted by the doctor from London’s Air Ambulance.”
And while it is only a matter of time before a “terrorist” link is found in this latest attack meant to put another western country on edge and to justify the UK’s recent launch of air strikes against ISIS, we wonder if there will be a front page op-ed in a leading liberal UK newspaper tomorrow demanding that all machetes be henceforth banned even as local TV crews stream live from the home of the alleged terrorist.
Here’s an Update: Sky News reporting that the subway incident is already being treated as an act of terrorism
Moments ago we another news item that after a report that a Lufthansa crew and passengers overpowered a Jordanian man with a US passport, who tried to open the cabin door on a Frankfurt-Belgrade flight on Sunday, while screaming that he wished to join Allah along with all the passengers, according to Serbian TV RTS.
However, as AFP adds, the man was promptly overpowered by crew and passengers with the German carrier insisting the safety of the plane had not been threatened. The airplane proceeded to land safely at 12:45pm local time.
“A passenger got up and tried to do something at the door, but was stopped by crew members and other passengers,” said airline spokesman Andreas Bartels.
“The passenger was then restrained for the remainder of the flight in his seat and handed over to the authorities in Belgrade,” he said.
“It was a normal door, which of course cannot be opened in-flight… it was not the cockpit door,” he said. “The safety of the flight was not jeopardised and the flight landed safely in Belgrade”.
Bartels declined to provide information on the identity of the passenger or his nationality, or what he said during the incident.
Serbian state-run television provided more details on the passenger, reporting that police had arrested a Jordanian man after he tried to forced his way into the cockpit of the Lufthansa flight. The Serb press said the Jordanian was called Laken and had a US passport. He had cried out that he wished to join Allah along with all the passengers, RTS said.
The man had suddenly got up during the flight, banged on the cockpit door and demanded to be allowed to enter, threatening to open one of the plane’s doors while it was flying over Austria, Serbia’s RTS television reported.
He was overpowered by flight crew and members of a Serb handball team who subdued him until the flight landed in Belgrade where he was arrested, the report said.
RTS adds that the coach of the Vojvodina handball team, Nikola Markovic said that during the incident on the plane there was no panic. Google translated: “We are all from the back of the plane saw that something was happening, but we thought that because of the extraordinary situation in each plane has someone from the security services. Nothing spectacular happened everything was all right. Most of us did not have information about what was happening, “Markovic said.
According to him, the flight attendant accompanied by two players took the man who caused an accident in business class, and there they sat down with him, without any difficult situation.
“After 15 minutes I called one of my players and he told me what happened. Most of the passengers did not even know what happened on the plane, until they found out later what had happened. The flight was calm, do not panic, all are well “Markovic said.
The plane landed safely when the other passengers learned about the incident after they were announced to the police.
Luckily, this time there were no consequences, however expect in light of this event, airline security checks to return to post-September 11 levels, especially if as we expect, tonight’s 8pm impromptu Obama statement seeking to “reassure the nervous nation“, achieves precisely the opposite.
Back in August, we did an investigation—the inspector General did—of the Department of Homeland Security, and they had 72 individuals that were on the terrorist watch list that were actually working at the Department of Homeland Security. The director had to resign because of that. Then we went further and did and eight-airport investigation. We had staffers go into eight different airports to test the department of homeland security screening process at major airports. They had a 95 percent failure rate. We had folks—this was a testing exercise, so we had folks going in there with guns on their ankles, and other weapons on their persons, and there was a 95 percent failure rate.
Will robots soon be able to teach themselves … everything? Kate Drew, special to CNBC.com
There’s a robot in California teaching itself to walk. Its name is Darwin, and like a toddler, it teeters back and forth in a UC Berkeley lab, trying and falling, and then trying again before getting it right. But it’s not actually Darwin doing all this. It’s a neural network designed to mimic the human brain.
Darwin’s baby steps speak to what many researchers believe will be the greatest leap in robotics — a kind of general machine learning that allows robots to adapt to new situations rather than respond to narrow programming.
Developed by Pieter Abbeel and his team at UC Berkeley’s Robot Learning Lab, the neural network that allows Darwin to learn is not programmed to perform any specific functions, like walking or climbing stairs. The team is using what’s called “reinforcement learning” to try and make the robots adapt to situations as a human child would.
Like a child’s brain, reinforcement technology invokes the trial-and-error process.
“Imagine learning a new skill, like how to ride a bike,” said John Schulman, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at UC Berkeley in Abbeel’s group. You’re going to fall a lot, but then, “after some practice, you figure it out.”
Robots are pretty good at walking on flat ground, but anytime a variable is introduced, like a step or a slope, they often can’t adapt.
Earlier this year, at the DARPA Robotics Challenge, some of the most high-tech robots in the world competed through a set of obstacles designed to mimic real-world disaster situations, like Fukushima. Nearly all of them failed, prompting a parade of GIFs on the Internet depicting falling robots.
For typically structured settings, like in factories, robots are programmed to repeat the same function over and over again, said Sergey Levine, another scientist working with Abbeel. For complex environments that might change, they need to be more sophisticated and able to adapt, Levine said.
“Imagine learning a new skill, like how to ride a bike. … After some practice, you figure it out.”-John Schulman, a Ph.D. candidate working in the UC Berkeley Robot Learning Lab
To enable the robots to adapt, the team at UC Berkeley is developing technology that doesn’t address specific behaviors.
“We’ve started looking at much less restrictive representations,” Levine said. “We are basically not telling the robot anything about doing the task.” Instead, they are using large neural networks that are general purpose. “It’s kind of like the difference between a circuit built for one specific job,” he explained, “and a general-purpose computer.”
This approach enables the team to explore other functionalities, as well.
“There’s very little in these algorithms that’s specific to [locomotion],” Levine said. “In reality, these methods are really designed from the ground up to be general.” They aren’t aimed at walking, or grasping, or doing the dishes — but can be applied to all of those things.
Less restrictive technology is also apt to make robots cheaper to build.
“Right now if, for example, you have a company that builds robots, for every piece of hardware that you build, you also have to figure out how you are going to manually control it,” Levine said. If a robot can learn on its own, the manual inputs needed for it to function would be fewer, thereby making it less costly to make.
In real scenarios, it’s really difficult to anticipate every situation in advance, and it’s nearly impossible to program for every situation, said Martial Hebert, a professor at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “The grand challenge is to be able to teach robots how to do end-to-end tasks.”
In an ideal world, a robot will be able to learn simply by demonstration, with no need for expensive, time-consuming programming, Herbert said, adding, “It will be much easier to configure them,” he said.
That, in turn, could help lower the purchase price for robots, making them accessible to everyday consumers — which right now they aren’t. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, used by several DARPA teams in the Challenge, carries a price tag of over $1 million.
“To get robots into our everyday environments will require equipping them with the ability to deal with a very large range of variation,” Abbeel said. “My belief is that the most practical way to equip robots with such skills is to equip them with the ability to learn.”
The scientists at UC Berkeley hope to move closer to a world where robots are autonomous, nimbly performing many functions typically done by humans. In the future, robots may be able to provide care for the elderly, conduct rescue efforts, clean up in disaster areas and even deliver mail, Schulman said.
There are still many situations that will need remote human control, like for operations that need to be executed very precisely, Hebert said. But the recent research suggests a new direction for the robotics field. “It’s moving away from pre-programming of robots and toward robots that are more and more able to generalize from example,” he said.
Abbeel’s team is attempting to flesh out this shift. “More work is necessary to move these results from simulation to the real world, but I think eventually this research will have a very big impact on robotics,” Schulman said. “It might be the path to actual humanoid robots, like Star Wars’ C-3PO.”