A Robot’s Body of Knowledge

Early risers may think it’s tough to fix breakfast first thing in the morning, but robots have it even harder. Even grabbing a cereal box is a challenge for your run-of-the-mill artificial intelligence (AI). Frosted Flakes come in a rectangular prism with colorful decorations, but so does your childhood copy of Chicken Little. Do you need to teach the AI to read before it can grab breakfast?

Maybe not. A team of European researchers has built a robot called ARMAR-III, which tries to learn not just from previously stored instructions or massive processing power but also from reaching out and touching things. Consider the cereal box: By picking it up, the robot could learn that the cereal box weighs less than a similarly sized book, and if it flips the box over, cereal comes out. Together with guidance and maybe a little scolding from a human coach, the robot—the result of the PACO-PLUS research project—can build general representations of objects and the actions that can be applied to them. “[The robot] builds object representations through manipulation,” explains Tamim Asfour of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, in Germany, who worked on the hardware side of the system.

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