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.

  • The founders of Embodied Intelligence, Peter Chen, Pieter Abbeel, Rocky Duan, and Tianhao Zhang, examine a Universal Robots robot controlled using virtual reality and tele-operation.
  • Embodied Intelligence
  • Intelligent Machines

    These AI Hotshots Plan to Reboot Manufacturing by Jumping Inside Robots

    The startup Embodied Intelligence is developing smart manufacturing robots that learn from human workers through virtual reality.

    Robots are taking over a growing number of manufacturing chores, but they remain relatively clumsy and slow to program.

    A startup called Embodied Intelligence plans to change that with robots that learn through observation, experimentation, and repetition. And they will be trained by human tele-operators wearing virtual-reality goggles.

    If the startup can achieve some of what it aims to, it could have a huge impact on manufacturing and perhaps other industries. New approaches that make robots more adroit and quicker to learn would shake up the way work is done.

    Embodied Intelligence was founded by Pieter Abbeel, a professor at UC Berkeley, along with several of his star students. Abbeel is an expert in machine learning, and he has done some groundbreaking work training robots to do difficult tasks through practice and experimentation (see “Innovators Under 35: Pieter Abbeel” and “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2017: Reinforcement Learning”) 

    Sign up for The Download
    What's important in technology and innovation, delivered to you every day.
    Manage your newsletter preferences

    “The goal is to bring the cutting-edge research to robotics and manufacturing,” Abbeel says. He says the techniques his company is developing will enable robots to do a range of things that are currently too time-consuming to be programmed in.

    This will include picking complex shapes out of bins, assembling electronic components, and manipulating deformable objects such as wires, cables, or fabrics—skills that could translate well to advanced manufacturing settings.

    The company will use several newer machine-learning methods, including deep reinforcement learning, deep imitation learning, and few-shot learning. Each approach tries to mimic the capabilities that still set humans apart from machines when it comes to learning.

    But while Abbeel and his cofounders are doing impressive work on machine-learning algorithms, he says that what will really help teach robots new skills more quickly is the use of tele-operation and virtual reality.

    “You can put on a VR headset and immerse yourself inside the robot,” Abbeel says. “The human is doing all the control and thinking, and you get very, very clean data collection. The things we’re interested in cannot be done with existing automation—they are just completely out of scope.”

    The technique is catching on elsewhere as well. Researchers at Google DeepMind, for example, have begun exploring how virtual reality can enable robots to learn more efficiently. And a company called Kindred AI, based in Vancouver, Canada, and San Francisco, is already using tele-operated robots and reinforcement learning to do simple picking tasks for companies including the clothing maker Gap (see “How a Human-Machine Mind-Meld Could Make Robots Smarter”).

    Couldn't make it to Cambridge? We've brought EmTech MIT to you!

    Watch session videos

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

    Insider Premium
    $179.95/yr US PRICE

    More from Intelligent Machines

    Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

    Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
    • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

      See details+

      What's Included

      Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

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

      Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

      Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

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

      Special interest publications

      Discount to MIT Technology Review events

      Special discounts to select partner offerings

      Ad-free web experience

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

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

      See details+

      What's Included

      Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

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

      Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

      See details+

      What's Included

      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.