Robot, beer me, please



Imagine a day coming when your robot servant will anticipate your every need, and even pour you an icy cold one when you command: “Robot, beer me, please!”

Thanks to the wonderful and very intelligent scientists at Cornell University’s Personal Robotics Lab, that day is here. Not only did the scientists invent a robot that can pour you a tall cold one, they can even anticipate where to pour your beverage of choice.

The robot they have trained to carry out these tasks is a PR2 robot from Willow Garage. It can be “trained” to not only figure out where and when to pour beer, but to also perform other actions that require anticipation.

All the PR2 robot requires is that it is armed with a Kinect 3D camera and a database of 3D videos. With these items, the PR2 can analyze what it sees and break down specific activities into several steps.

It then anticipates what might happen next with objects it picks out in the scene. The PR2  can choose the most likely next step for activities like eating, drinking, cleaning, and putting things away.

If a person, for instance, wants to put something into his or her refrigerator, the PR2 can learn to anticipate this. When someone is carrying, say, a pot near the refrigerator, the PR2 can anticipate the person’s desire and move to open the door for him.

When the anticipatory algorithm is not used, the robot will end up spilling the oh-so-delicious beer on a table. But, when the algorithm is working, the PR2 will anticipate the location of a cup and will be able to pour beer into it without spilling a drop.

However, the robot’s ability to anticipate farther out  into the future of what a human might do  than one second degrades with the length of time involved.

When the PR2 had to look only one second into the future, it made correct predictions 82 percent of the time when looking one second into the future, 71 percent correct for three seconds, and 57 percent correct for 10 seconds.

According to Cornell Computer Science Professor Ashutosh Saxena: “Even though humans are predictable, they are only predictable part of the time. We extract the general principles of how people behave.”

“The future would be to figure out how the robot plans its action. Right now we are almost hard-coding the responses, but there should be a way for the robot to learn how to respond.”

This technology has other applications besides helping you get blissfully  inebriated. It could lead to the creation of robot butler and maids,  to  better telepresence robots, and also to creating robots that work better alongside humans in factories, offices, or hospitals.

One day, robots based on this technology could help seniors maneuver around their homes, giving them a fuller sense of independence.

We may not have jet packs in our garages yet, but the day might not be so far away when we each have our own robot servants, like Isaac Asimov envisioned in his science fiction classic, I, Robot.

The funds to develop the PR2 robot originated from the U. S. Army Research Office, the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation, and Microsoft.


Written by: Douglas Cobb