Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Intelligent Machines

Robot, Get the Fork Out of My Sink

Better vision and manipulation could help robots move into factories and even homes.

The robots are coming—to do the dishes, if we’re lucky.

Speaking at EmTech MIT 2016 today, Stefanie Tellex, an assistant professor at Brown University, showed how her research group taught a robot to perceive and grasp difficult objects, including a fork in a sink of running water, using a clever camera trick and a powerful machine-learning process.

The simple task of grabbing a fork from a sink filled with running water is an important step forward for robot-kind. Robots still struggle to perform many tasks reliably, such as grasping unfamiliar objects, especially when lighting conditions are challenging. “Most robots can’t handle most objects most of the time,” says Tellex. “That’s the hard problem we’re solving.”

The project also points to ways that robots can learn how to take on new jobs in industry and around the home. There is a huge opportunity for robots to help with elder care, for example, if they can be programmed to perform reliably in messy and ever-changing domestic situations.

Tellex’s team used an off-the-shelf industrial robot from Rethink Robotics, which has a camera in its arm, to perform the fork-grasping trick. By moving the camera and combining different images, they were able to build a virtual light-field camera, meaning it captures not just the intensity of light but also the direction of individual rays. This made it possible to build a 3-D model of the scene, and to cope with problems like reflectivity.

In separate experiments, the group is also using a machine-learning approach known as reinforcement learning to train robots to pick up unfamiliar objects. This involves letting a robot that is controlled by a large neural network experiment with different grasps and reinforcing behavior that seems to produce positive results. The results can be impressive, making it possible for a machine to devise a strategy for grasping previously unseen objects that would be extremely difficult to program manually. Tellex is also exploring ways for robots to share what they have learned, something that promises to accelerate the training process dramatically (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies: Robots That Teach Each Other”).

“Our approach is to make the robot learn to adapt itself to the environment it finds itself in,” says Tellex. “Through that learning it can reach a reliability that wasn’t possible previously. It can also use this information to generalize to other situations.”

New robot learning approaches are rapidly moving into industrial settings. Existing robotics companies are developing products that will use reinforcement learning to accelerate robot programming (see “A Japanese Robot Giant Gives Its Arms Some Brains”). Companies specializing in AI and machine learning also see the technology as a way to break into an industry that looks set to evolve rapidly (see “Google Builds a Robotic Hive-Mind Kindergarten”).

“We want robots to be able go into factories, household environments, and manipulate,” Tellex says, “and everything starts with picking something up.”

Hear more about machine learning at EmTech MIT 2017.

Register now

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

#EmTechMIT Coverage
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look: exclusive early access to important stories, before they’re available to anyone else

    Insider Conversations: listen in on in-depth calls between our editors and today’s thought leaders

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.