Housekeeping Robots Easy To Imagine, Tough To Make
Robert Heinlein knew just what we wanted in 1956 - a housekeeping robot able to do really any handy task that a person could do:
Just what did I want Flexible Frank to do? Answer: any work a human being does around a house. He didn't have to play cards, make love, eat or sleep, but he did have to clean up after the card game, cook, make beds...
(Read more about Flexible Frank)
Regrettably, it is much easier to imagine one than it is to make one.
(We want Flexible Frank!)
“Cleaning is different from other tasks we’ve thought about in robotics, which [have] typically involved manipulating objects, or moving them place to place,” says Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. Last year, she earned a three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Robotics Initiative, within the National Science Foundation, to research a cleaning robot.
She points out that getting a robot to clean would require much more than simply getting it to hold a tool to some surface. “There’s the angle, how much you’re pushing and pressure you’re applying, how fast you move it, how much you move it, and even the orientation [of the tool] relative to the dirt.” A robot would also have to adjust to the curvature on a tiled countertop versus a flat floor, and properly choose the right tool for the particular kind of mess: a sponge to absorb spilled juice, a feather duster on shelves, and a stiff brush to loosen soap scum from the shower.
Cakmak is trying to make such things possible. To train robots in her lab, she uses a technique called “programming by demonstration”: The machines learn by imitating a researcher who shows a cleaning technique for the robot’s vision system. Nearing the end of the first year of her three-year grant, Cakmak and her grad students are running a robot through many different training sessions with colored aquarium crystals as “test dirt,” using a variety of cleaning attachments, from a broom to a feather duster. She wants to get the robot to generalize the cleaning motion from the human demonstration, and also correctly identify the “state of dirt” before and after the cleaning action.