As robots become more common in offices and homes, more humans will need to communicate with them. Sadly, bots still can’t converse or read or write well—yet. A European research project is looking to fix this limitation with a WikiHow-skimming kitchen robot that uses text and voice commands to throw together grub.
The European research project RoboHow is behind the robots, called PR2. Each one combs instructions from the how-to site to churn out pancakes or pizza. It’s a big deal, MIT Technology Review reports. See, navigating a kitchen is easy for our brainy, fleshy selves, because it’s an environment filled with micro-tasks that we inherently know how to complete based on years of experience: Twist the jar to open the sauce jar, put dirty dishes in the dishwasher, wash fruit before eating it, give the oven time to preheat. What PR2 does is use written materials to gain that knowledge, perform the unfamiliar task, and then sends the instructions to an open online database that other robots can draw from, expanding their general knowledge.
In other words, instead of programming a robot’s behavior ahead of time, humans can instead just tell the robot what to do, just as though they were delegating flapjack-flipping duties to another human. The better robots get at this kind of AI, the more likely we are to see them in our homes and workplaces.
Why’s learning from WikiHow so impressive? A couple of reasons. First, many robots are built to carry out back-breaking, boring tasks, and are mostly industrial and plopped in factories. There, the machines are often stationary, sitting in the same spot on the assembly line all day, repetitiously screwing on the same screws or lifting the same 100-pound loads. However, PR2 is able to move about and adapt to a variety of changing situations on-the-go. Refining that kind of independent smart behavior is a huge, continued challenge for today’s roboticists.
Second, smooth, natural human-and-bot communication is a key area of research right now, as more companies want to make “friendly,” chatty companion robots that can understand instructions and carry on conversations like humans can.
In the case of the kitchen-conquering PR2, researchers are also teaching them simple tasks they might carry out in a variety of environments. For example, in a lab, where the robots are learning to handle chemicals—which sounds like it could end badly, so hopefully the robots can also figure out how to use fire extinguishers if need be, too.
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