Finding the 'Holy Grail' of Making Smarter Robots

PHOTO: A Baxter manufacturing robot on display at Innorobo International Robotics trade show on March 18, 2014 in Lyon, France.

Robots that can learn how to do just about anything, including anticipating what their human owners are about to do, may be lurking around the corner if scientists at four leading research universities and several high tech companies achieve their goal.

No human assistance needed. Robots anywhere in the world will be able to call up Robo Brain and find out how to pour a cup of coffee, or assemble a bike, or build a better world.

That's the goal of scientists like Ashutosh Saxena of Cornell University, the principle investigator in an ambitious multidiscipline project that could revolutionize the world of robotics.

"Every robot in the world should be able to connect to our Robo Brain" within a few years, Saxena said in a telephone interview. "It's just like people going on the Internet to find information."

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Robots will be able to ask questions, read manuals, watch videos, or even interact with a human if necessary, paving the way to the Holy Grail of computing -- robots that can learn on their own.

Sound like science fiction? It's not.

Researchers at Cornell, Brown and Stanford universities and the University of California, Berkeley, are heading up the project, and they will soon be joined by six other research universities. They are supported by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Office and the National Robotics Initiative. And, by the way, the deep pockets of Google, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

So this is the real deal.

Robo Brain is based on cloud computing, or the use of shared resources toward common goals. So far, about 1 billion images, 120,000 You Tube videos, and 100 million documents and appliance manuals have been added to the cloud. Those numbers are expected to soar into the stratosphere over the next three years.

Only the universities have access to the brain at the moment, but in three years the researchers expect to link the cloud to a server, making it accessible to anyone. But it will be more than an Internet for robots. Saxena described it as "a knowledge base" offering tried and proven ways to get something done, and hopefully without the tons of misinformation crowding the Internet.

The researchers are working with several existing robots, including PR2 and the ever-so-clever Baxter, which is designed to do the grunt work in factories, freeing humans for more challenging tasks.

The obvious ultimate goal is to make robots more like us, and thus more useful to us in many ways. And therein lies a conundrum: robots are more predictable than humans. But for robots to work side by side with humans, and do whatever we want them to do, they have to anticipate what we are about to do next, like turn left when our right-turn blinker is flashing. That's probably what Google's driverless car is thinking.

How is a robot supposed to know what we are about to do, even if we aren't sure ourselves? That's not as hard as it sounds, according to Saxena, who pointed out that we humans are actually pretty predictable.

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