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This might seem like a trivial task, but that’s largely because humans tend to underestimate the complexity of their daily activities. Identifying and placing objects requires a lot of different processes. The beauty of Domo is that it’s a very integrated system and can handle many processes at once. That’s why Domo can handle the unexpected; the same algorithm that works for a water bottle will work for a box of spaghetti.

Domo can also perform basic insertion tasks, such as placing a spoon in a bowl, and help with tidying up the house by carrying around a box in which the human can put clutter. “I can hand it a box of any size, and it can hold it between its two hands, track me, and keep the box nearby,” Edsinger says.

Domo, which was created for research purposes, will probably never make it onto store shelves–or into anyone’s kitchen. But the research that goes into Domo will likely be used by other roboticists in their quest to create the ideal domestic robot. For example, a robot’s ability to find the tip of an object is extremely helpful for scientists developing robots that can work with household tools.

Illah Nourbakhsh, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is impressed with the special springs incorporated into Domo’s actuators. These springs, known as series elastic actuators, can be found in 22 of the robot’s 29 joints. The actuators let the robot know how much force is applied by an external object and act as shock absorbers if the robot hits something. By making the system tolerant to bumps, it’s safer for both the robot and the human. “In a car assembly plant, you have sensors around the robots so people can never get near them,” Nourbakhsh says. But with a home-care robot, the situation is quite different: one wants the human and the robot to be able to work in close quarters.

However, whether a humanoid machine remains the best robotic solution to elder care remains controversial. Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford’s artificial-intelligence lab, questions whether it’s necessary for the robot to resemble a human. “It’s a great project, but by going to a humanoid form, the problem becomes harder than it needs to be,” Thurn says. A robot arm mounted to a cabinet might be a simpler solution to the grocery problem, for example.

Nourbakhsh agrees. “The problem is [that] making a general-purpose robot with a human form is extremely expensive,” he says. If the humanoid is mobile, then power requirements also become a problem. Nourbakhsh says that existing batteries don’t run for long enough to handle routine housework. He says he envisions a future elder-care system in which the robots are incorporated into standard appliances, such as stoves and refrigerators, so that they “disappear into the world around you.”

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Credit: Aaron Edsinger

Tagged: Computing, software, MIT, robots, artificial intelligence

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