Basil Reification Robot

The Gundersons want a robot that can solve simple tasks, like asking the bartender for a beer and then bringing it back to the table. To do this, they think that robots must solve the kind of problem that humans do instinctively when dealing with the world.


(Basil robot with the Gundersons)

The Gundersons call this process "reification," a term they borrowed from philosophy, meaning to mistake an abstract idea for a real thing. They believed they could mathematically model it. If they could program a robot to symbolically identify objects by focusing on just a few key attributes, like basic shapes and sizes, and ignore everything else — just as people do — the machine would be much more adept at navigating its complex and dynamic world. Furthermore, since the robot would be able to recognize objects in his surroundings, the Gundersons could teach it basic attributes of these objects so it didn't see them as general obstacles or targets, but as abstract concepts like people and chairs — abstract concepts that computers are good at reasoning about. Finally, such a robot would be able to store in its memory a basic symbolic mock-up of what these objects look like and where they're located so it wouldn't have to continuously rebuild its concept of the world every time it moved or interacted with it.

The key is to give the robot a way to identify and work with classes of objects like chairs. They tried the usual approaches - sketching 3D models of chairs and uploading them to Basil - and failed. Then, the light dawned.

The problem, they discovered, was the vagaries of the image captured by the sonars never looked like the perfectly designed chair model — so, says Louise, they decided, "Why don't we just have the robot record what it sees?" They instructed him to take sonar image after sonar image of a wooden lab chair, capturing how it appeared from every angle. Then they spent days poring over the data, identifying basic characteristic patterns, like how the chair is waist high and always has legs and a straight back — basic patterns Basil could use to determine whether a given object is a wooden chair.

Then, with the work finished this past June, they wheeled a chair in front of Basil and asked him what he saw. Using the chipper dialogue they'd programmed, he announced, "Ooh, I see a wooden chair."

So what does this mean for you, the average human? If this problem can be solved in general, it will be a huge step away from robots who can solve a few pre-programmed problems to robots able to accept commands and then figure out what to do on their own.

If this can be done, robots like Rosie from the Jetsons and Flexible Frank from Robert Heinlein's 1956 novel The Door Into Summer may be with us sooner rather than never.

Read this very enjoyable source article at Denver Westwood News: The Gundersons get us ready for Basil, the robot of our dreams.

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