While the robot teaching itself to cook is still struggling, here's a robot that's nearly mastered another household task: laundry. Putting dirty clothes into a hamper and moving them to a washing machine isn't especially hard for humans. But for a robot, the chore is a challenge because it involves some uncertainty. "The exact number of clothes in the heap and the number that may be picked up with each grasp cannot be determined precisely," write University of California, Berkeley, computer scientist Siddarth Srivastava and his coauthors. "Doing the laundry thus represents a challenging planning problem." When you start loading dirty t-shirts into a hamper, you may not know how many there are, or how many trips to the washer you'll need to take. This probably doesn't bother you too much. But a robot would prefer to know what it's doing before it starts. The researchers solved this problem by programming a robot to make "generalized plans" instead. As long as there's laundry on the table, the program says, keep putting it in the hamper. Once the hamper's full, carry it it to the washer, then take items out until you don't see any more. The robot is called PR2 (for "Personal Robot"), and the Berkeley team has previously taught it how to do things like set a table and take things out of a drawer. Laundry-wise, it's been practicing tasks such as folding clothes and pairing socks. PR2's lesson on loading the washing machine was a success. The robot was able to pick up all the items in a heap of dirty clothes, carry them in a hamper to a washing machine, open the door, and toss the clothing in. As far as finding the dirty clothes in the first place, the researchers have so far only taught it to pick up clothing that's red. The robot also does everything at a glacial pace (the video below is sped up). Humans are still waiting to see a household robot that can really help out—or at least wash our blue jeans and our whites. But teaching robots to make flexible plans is crucial for other kinds of research too. Coauthor Shlomo Zilberstein says that self-driving cars, for example, may need to pay attention to what humans are doing and decide when to take over. Generalized planning programs could help the driverless cars of the future keep us safe. And who knows; one day they might even help a robot take that laundry back out of the washing machine and put it in the dryer.
Image and video: Siddarth Srivastava.