Sure, Alphago—a Google computer that plays the game Go—beat Lee Sedol, the world’s reigning master of the game. AI once again effortlessly outmaneuvered us poor bags of flesh. The machine revolution is nigh!
Except there’s one crucial thing AlphaGo couldn’t do: pick up those black and white Go stones and put them down on the board. A Google programmer had to do that.
“Maybe the hardest part is not playing the game but moving the pieces,” says Siddhartha Srinivasa, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s only half kidding. Srinivasa is an expert in robot manipulation—the art of grabbing, holding, and using objects. And this, it turns out, is the real challenge for our emerging Skynet. Robots are increasingly able to understand the world, but they’re terrible at handling it. If robots are really going to start helping us out in everyday life, they’re going to have to get more than smart. They’re going to have to get physical.
As an example, take a look at the Amazon Picking Challenge. In this contest, robots had to grab loose objects—like a package of Oreos or a rubber duck—and put them in a container. The winner took fully 20 minutes to grapple with a mere 10 items. “Like watching paint dry,” as one observer noted. The other teams did far worse; a toddler could have beaten them all.
The physical world defeats our bots because it’s been designed by and for humans. We’re masterful at dealing with mess and uncertainty. We intuitively grok the behavior of stacks of crap, things that roll over on their sides. Bots don’t. “Just look at your own desk,” Srinivasa says. “It’s filled with clutter, because humans are expert at dealing with clutter.”