Finding the 'Holy Grail' of Making Smarter Robots

"People follow habits," he said. "We do some things more than others. We use our right hand more than our left. When passing someone else, we usually pass on the right. We know how people behave because of kinematic constraints (we can't really jump over the moon) and our actions are based on habits, so it's possible to guess what a person is going to do."

One video shows a robot about to pour a cup of coffee, but it stops when it sees a person's right hand moving toward the cup. Chances are the hand is going to move the cup, allowing the coffee to spill across the table. So the robot waits.

It learns, in other words, how to pour the coffee safely, after it has figured out how to open the coffee can and make the coffee and retrieve the cup from the cabinet, and so forth.

A good robot also needs to learn how to be polite. Another video shows a soccer fan transfixed before a television set, anticipating an upcoming play. But a robot, on its way to the coffee machine, moves between the fan and the TV at just the wrong moment. The robot quickly learns to go around the viewer the next time.

Saxena almost makes it all sound too simple. But he notes that all we need to access the Internet is a smart phone, or a laptop. Any respectable robot would come with that ability, and Robo Brain will be accessible 24/7.

To function in a human environment a robot needs to understand the most fundamental facts, like the function of a chair. There are all kinds of chairs, used for all kinds of purposes, like reading, sitting, sleeping, eating. Just getting that through to a robot requires what the researchers describe as "deep learning."

That means translating a coffee mug into a series of abstract images that the robot can comprehend through its three-dimensional vision. That's right, Saxena said, robots "see" in 3-D.

That's actually based on technology dating back to the 1960s -- a lifetime ago -- when scientists created LIDAR (sometimes spelled Lidar, or lidar) which combined light (LI) and radar (dar) to image three dimensional objects, like the surface of the Earth.

They can see, they can hear, they can talk, and soon all of them will be able to tap into the Robo Brain to learn how to open a door that has a weird handle. Nobody needs to help them. They can watch a video, or read a manual, or study a diagram.

They can stay on the job for 24 hours, seven days a week. They aren't likely to sue you, or go out on a strike.

But that leaves us with a question. When they finally know how to do everything, why would they need us?

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