Software recently created by a Carnegie Mellon team teaches robots how to learn new activities by first studying people performing those tasks.
These robots are already capable of opening cabinets and removing garbage bags without any assistance, and they may one day be able to learn how to carry out tasks simply by viewing YouTube videos. Although the research is still in its early stages, the program provides a look into an unsettling future where robots are more helpful housemates.
For years, tech firms have teased a Jetsons-style future in which robots will wipe the floor and clean our counters. The upscale vacuum maker Dyson said in May that it has been assembling a team to create robots that can sort through dishes and even clean beneath couch cushions. The possibility of robot butlers zipping around the house picking up used towels and serving champagne was raised by Samsung last year. However, apart from smart speakers and partially automated equipment, home robots are not yet very prevalent in the typical family. But in the next years, it’s probable that the future of these gadgets—and what they might ultimately do in our homes—will start to take shape.
“The idea is you don’t have to wait for the robots to collect billions of data across lots of scenarios to learn something general and then get deployed,” says Carnegie Mellon professor Deepak Pathak. “It completely sidesteps that process by putting a robot in homes directly, and helps them improve in that environment, itself, by practicing.”
Home robots have existed in various forms for a while, and they are much more useful nowadays. Robot vacuum cleaners, like the roughly 20-year-old Roomba, have developed from very basic autonomous robots to artificially intelligent machines that interact with smart speakers and use computer vision to analyze the spaces they clean. The most recent Roomba versions can even independently go to and from recharge stations where they empty trash into a box. Similar navigational technology was used by Amazon to create the Amazon Astro security robot. This Wall-E-looking, microwave-sized robot can explore your house while you’re away and record footage. Additionally, it serves as a personal assistant that can identify and track family members.
Another class of robots that can perform more specialized activities, such as snow removal, cat litter removal, grill cleaning, and pool cleaning, has also been made possible by AI advancements. There are also social robots, which are intended to mimic friendship, send reminders, and anticipate their users’ schedules – a feature that is especially useful for senior citizens. New York State already has plans to provide 800 of these robots to the state’s elderly citizens. One such device, dubbed ElliQ, recently went on sale in the US. A single ElliQ robot costs $250, plus an additional $30 per month for an annual content subscription.
The majority of these robots are only capable of performing the tasks for which they were specifically created, which makes the thought of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on one of these gadgets unappealing. The In-the-Wild Human Imitating Robot Learning, or WHIRL, software was developed by Carnegie Mellon researchers with the goal of addressing this issue. Any robot can be equipped with WHIRL, which adjusts to the specific device’s physical capabilities. The robot attempts to train itself how to perform the same action using any mechanical limbs it may have after seeing what the person in its home is doing.
“Every task is unique, and we as humans can do all those tasks,” says Pathak. “Our robots currently are not capable of that. They’re the opposite. They can only do one task in one environment.”
Hopefully, home robots improve, and our residences begin to resemble the Jetsons a little more. After all, if the smart home does become a reality for the majority of people, a network of domestic robots may do a variety of duties we’d prefer not to undertake. This would free up a ton of time for us humans to spend on activities that we enjoy much more than putting out the trash.