Make your robot smarter by having it surfing the web!

The UW’s robot builds a turtle model. Credit: University of Washington

Robotics is progressing rapidly, although most of us don't realise it. Most of the robots are hidden from our perception since they play in production lines, in surgery rooms, in the cockpit of the plane we are flying on. And those we use every day are so "natural" that we no longer perceive them as robots, like the tools you may be using to prepare your meal or the vacuum cleaner tiding up your flat.

Their evolution depends on several factors, including new materials that can make movements easier (replacing motors with smart tensile materials, as an example) and a host of sensors providing spatial vision and tactile feedback.

All of this would be basically useless without computers and software to orchestrate the whole. And here scientists are also working hard to make these computer smarter.

At the University of Washington a team of researchers has developed a program that let a robot learn by "looking" at information on the web!

As you can see in the video clip, the robot can browse the web to get hints on how to do a certain action. Out there, on the web, there are hundreds (sometimes millions) of people who have placed their experience to your service. And indeed, I am quite often turning to the web to get information on how to do something.

Why not use the same "knowledge" base for a robot?

The idea is good, but turning it into reality is quite complex. Today there are several robots that have been built with the capability to learn from a human (see Baxter...) but even simple activities would require a lot of teaching. 

Suppose you have bought a home assistant (we are probably just few years away) and you tae it home and start to teach it (him?) to load the dishwasher. Well, that is an easy task but once you start to think about it there are different ways to place cutlery and dish-ware in the dishwasher and that depends on the type of wares you need to wash, how dirty they are and so on. It is going to take you quite a bit of time to teach your assistant and you are pretty likely to discover that you forgot some tips when a crystal ware gets broken!

What the researchers are trying to do is to have your future assistant surf the Internet to learn the practicalities of loading the dishwasher by looking at information provided by other "humans". They have called this: Ask the crowd!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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