Skip to Content

Demo: Teachable Robots

Michigan State University researcher Juyang Weng shows off his “developmental” robots, which learn the same way kids do.

Like any proud parent, Michigan State University computer scientist Juyang Weng has a lot to say about what sets his little ones apart from their peers. Traditional robots, he explains, must be specially programmed for new tasks. And you just can’t teach them much. Sure, they can acquire data-but only within narrowly defined parameters set ahead of time by their programmers. “But human learning is not like that,” Weng says. “Human learning is real-time, online, on the fly.” And that kind of learning, Weng says, is essential if you want a machine to be able to cope with the unexpected-unpredictable terrain, new people or objects, noisy settings-which will surely confront robotic household assistants and military machines alike.

In 1994, Weng and his team set out to build a robot with a capacity for learning like that of a human baby. They came up with a black, moon-faced machine named SAIL, short for Self-Organizing Autonomous Incremental Learner, endowed with what Weng calls a “developmental program”-a program that imparts attributes such as curiosity. Then SAIL was “born.” “Birth’ means that the robot starts to interact with the real world, just like a baby interacts with his doctors, his father, his mother,” Weng explains. “These interactions make the robot gain a sense of the outside world.” Through such exploration, SAIL has learned tasks like navigation, identifying and sorting objects, even some speech. And he now has a younger-though physically more sophisticated-sibling, Dav. Weng introduced his robotic family to Technology Review senior editor Rebecca Zacks.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it
Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it

The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.

The US government’s China Initiative sought to protect national security. In the most comprehensive analysis of cases to date, MIT Technology Review reveals how far it has strayed from its goals.

Image of workers inspecting solar panels at a renewable energy plant
Image of workers inspecting solar panels at a renewable energy plant

Renewables are set to soar

The world will likely witness a wind and solar boom over the next five years, as costs decline and nations raise their climate ambitions.

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

travelers walk through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
travelers walk through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

We won’t know how bad omicron is for another month

Gene sequencing gave an early alert about the latest covid variant. But we'll only know if omicron is a problem by watching it spread.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.