A Robot in the Kitchen

Roboticists in Japan and South Korea are designing the household servants of the future

2 min read
A Robot in the Kitchen

Rosie, the robot who kept house for the title family in "The Jetsons," a 1960s animated television show, has at last come alive—sort of. Before you'll see a robot slicing cucumbers in your kitchen, researchers will need to make these mechanical servants smarter. Here's how three teams are tackling this challenge.

Photo: Erico Guizzo
University of Tokyo's Jouhou System Kougaku Laboratory

What: An HRP-2 humanoid robot learns to wash dishes.

How: The researchers are using a combination of human motion-capture and video-game-style simulations to teach the robot how to handle different dishware and deal with uncertainties. "We're focusing on failure detection," says Kei Okada, a University of Tokyo professor. "So if you move a cup while the robot is trying to grasp it, the robot just recomputes its actions." That is, it won't try to grab the cup from your hands—and then vaporize you.

Photo: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters
Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), Seoul

What: Mahru, a biped humanoid, can pop a snack into the microwave and bring it to you.

How: A human wearing a sensor suit performs tasks while a motion-tracking system records the action. The robot is programmed to reproduce the tasks while adapting to changes in the space, such as a displaced chair. "Robots that operate in human environments need to move like humans," says Bum-Jae You, head of KIST's Cognitive Robotics Center. Mahru also performs some dance moves like a pro.
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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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