Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How long before we have a real Robbie the Robot?

If the title of this post confuses you, Robbie the Robot was a $200,000 invention created by movie studios for the amazing 1950's film, Forbidden Planet. It cost so much, that the studio re-used the robot in several projects following Forbidden Planet and the character remained extremely popular.

I recently re-watched Forbidden Planet because I love the story so much. Some of it inspires my first novel that will be available in 2012. But aside from that, I saw a YouTube video of a real life robot that blew my socks off.

Want a sandwich? Well the robot PR2 has learned how to fetch stuff from the fridge, which is great and all, but thanks to a technique called semantic search, it can now bring you a sandwich when it's not even sure where the sandwich is.

"Semantic search" is simply the ability to make inferences about an object based on what is known about similar objects and the environment. It sounds complicated, but it's really just a computerized version of what we humans think of as "common sense." For example, if someone asks you to bring them a cup without telling you exactly where the cup is, you're probably clever enough to infer that cups can be found in drawers or cabinets or dishwashers, and that drawers and cabinets and dishwashers are all usually located in a kitchen, so you can go to the kitchen, poke around for a little bit, and find a cup. Semantic search allows robots to do the same sort of thing.

The advantage of this technique is that it gives robots the ability to infer things that it doesn't know from things that it does know, and use reason to make deductions about parts of the word that it's less familiar with. Additionally, the robot can add to its knowledge base to quickly adapt to new places and people with weird habits. So like, if you're one of those people who stores peanut butter in the bathroom, the robot can start associating peanut butter with bathrooms.

The following demo, from the University of Tokyo and Technische Universit√§t M√ľnchen, puts semantic search to the test by tasking a PR2 with fetching a sandwich. The PR2 has no detailed information on sandwiches, but its database tells it that sandwiches are a type of food, and that food can be found in kitchens and restaurants, and from that, it figures out where to look.  Please watch the video and tell me what you think in the comments:
I don't know about you, but this is pretty cool.  We live in interesting times.  Asimov would be proud.

21 comments:

  1. Not sure about all this inferring. We ask the robots for world peace, they infer the best way is to wipe out all humans. Assumptions never end well (ask any economist).

    mood
    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

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  2. Love the part in the video where the robot keeps pushing the elevator button. Is impatience part of 'semantic search'?

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  3. Great, soon we'll have robots taking the jobs of teenagers and illegal immigrants.

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  4. I think it's good practice to program a robot to make a sandwich, but someday I would like to see robots going to places humans can't easily go and doing more complicated things. Robots don't have to eat, breathe, etc. This gives them an advantage in space. The moons, Mars, moons of Jupiter perhaps. Setting up space stations, posts, etc. Maybe even exploring beyond our solar system.

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  5. I could use a robot getting me a sandwich. I think they have come along way in developing decision trees for artificially intelligence.

    My son has a $5 handheld game that involves the human picking an item and the handheld then asks 20 yes or no questions to try and guess it. The machine is accurate 90%+ of the time.

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  6. I'm curious to know how long the process actually took ... and did the robot order the sandwich at Subway, or did the camera man?

    Did I miss the point ...

    *sigh*

    But, my son is on the robotics team at his HS - so I'm sure he'll get a real kick out of this video!!!

    Thanks for sharing.

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  7. I think that a robot better than this will be in every home within the next 50 years. "The Help" will become just like the Jetson's Rosie! That is truly remarkable.

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  8. @Heather: and then, in 50 years, we'll have a faux memoir from a spoiled college girl who thinks back to how she practically started the entire Robot Civil Rights movement just by not beating her servants viciously.

    I was trying to decide if I should be a "Meh, wouldn't it have been easier to just bring his lunch in himself, that thing's probably remote-controlled" person or a "Oh, man, the future is now and I can't wait for iRobot to act out skits from my favorite TV shows while I wait for the coffee to brew in the morning."

    But I decided to go off the board, Wink Martindale, and suggest that as cool as that was (pretty cool) one thing that's holding back robots is that we keep trying to make robots more like humans, which doesn't make a lot of sense because we already HAVE humans, and we're not very good at being them. The robots that have worked best for us are robots that aren't really like humans at all: Roomba, for example, isn't humanesque, period. Auto-assembling robots aren't human at all. The Mars Rover was a robot of sorts and it didn't look even kind of human.

    The future of robotics, I think, is making robots LESS like humans and more like robots.

    Which brings up Cindy's point, which I love. There was recently a conference on how to get humans to the nearest star, which would be practically impossible by our standards now, but getting ROBOTS to the nearest star essentially just involves getting them up into space and shoving them in the right direction, so if we stopped worrying about making robots more human (sorry, Michael) and instead made a robot shaped, say, like a giant somewhat-spiky ball full of instruments and with little grabber arms that can come out from inside, and then built, like, 50 of those, we could launch them at all the Earthlike planets we've found and get them going ahead of us to explore and beam back what they find, so that by the time we actually solve the problem of how to get humans to the stars (we will), we'd know what to expect when we got there.

    MAN, I am on a ROLL today. I won a hearing this morning and now I solved space exploration. ME FOR EARTH PRESIDENT!

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  9. That's wild! Teaching robots to think...

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  10. That's wild! Teaching robots to think...

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  11. So nobody else is thinking Terminator and Age of the Machines? Am I the only paranoid one? I mean COOL, SURE... but a robot that can infer is a robot that can learn and how long until these thinking robots... No?

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  12. But can it hold the mayo, that's what I want to know.

    @Brian: While I agree with you in theory (the robots in Star Wars are functionally designed, even 3PO, who only looks human because he's a protocol droid), the truth is that robots will never really make it mainstream until the sex industry starts using them. Just look at the internet. It wouldn't be what it is today if not for internet porn. So making robots more human does make more than a little bit of sense from that standpoint.
    heh

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  13. Hmmm. I can see why this kind of robot would hold your interest. But let's not get away from the real issue here.

    Some people store their peanut butter in the bathroom? Seriously? Or is that just a made up thing that you made up? Because that is seriously weird.

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  14. Cool and scary. At some point in the future, will the robot become sentient? Then it will want to do more than fetch a sandwich.

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  15. The robot waiting for the elevator reminded me of Star Wars. I think it is not only cool but wonderful for people who have disabilities. They could live on their own if they had a robot.

    I can think of a million uses for a robot, some good and some very bad.

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  16. Oh wow. The whole robot thing... Too many thoughts, not enough time.

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  17. This is so cool. I've always wanted a robot.

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  18. I've never seen this film. I will put it on our list! As for robots, it would be cool to have someone do those mundane jobs.

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  19. I'm kinda with Hart. I kinda think this is scary stuff, trying to get Robots to infer things... reminds me of Frank Herberts book 'The Jesus Incident' The computer run ship gains consciousness. Ship takes it's human crew to a planet it has decided they, the peon humans, will colonize. Then the Ship decides they must WorShip him. It's all coming now, man, just like Herbert wrote, because we can't resist making robots into human-like beings. Robots will rule the world!!!!

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  20. Very interesting post. Now I want to see the movie!

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  21. Robots are cool, end the end I'm afraid what will limit them is their power consumption, not their ability to do stuff.... awesome though.

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