The Little Robot That Taught the Big Robot a Thing or Two – MATT SIMON 05.10.17

Your brain is great and all, but it has a serious limitation: You can’t just download new information instantly, like in The Matrix. Robots, however, certainly can. Just imagine a future where they’re hooked up in the cloud—when one of them learns something, they all learn something. Let’s just hope that certain something is nice, like how to give hugs.

The problem, though, is that you can’t just have a little rover learn to grasp something, then expect that knowledge to translate into a hulking bipedal robot. But new research out today from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory takes a big step toward making such seamless transfers of knowledge a reality. It all begins with a little robot named Optimus and its friend, the famous 6-foot-tall humanoid Atlas.

The researchers started by teaching Optimus—a two-armed robot meant for bomb disposals—how to pull a tube out of another tube. First, they gave it some information about how different objects require different manipulations. Then they held its hand in a sim. “Imagine kind of a videogame where the robot is inside that 3-D world,” says roboticist Claudia Perez-D’Arpino, co-author of the study. “With the mouse you can basically grab the hands and move them around.”

This way, you don’t have to be a gifted coder to be able to command a robot. And it’s all the more intuitive for the operator because it’s a lot like how humans learn: Toddlers have a knowledge base of, say, grasping a binky, but can recontextualize that knowledge of manipulation as they encounter new objects.

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