Artificial intelligence-powered robots seem to intimidate all kinds of intelligent people, from Stephen Hawking to Elan Musk. But how scary are pieces of machinery? They can be powered down. They are programmed by humans. As far as we know the robots at work in the world today, and not the ones of science fiction, aren’t greedy, or vindictive, or even ethically benign. They are inanimate. On another level, robots aren’t able to navigate space very well. Even autonomous cars rely on the vehicle to attain motion. There doesn’t seem to be much of a threat. However these physical limitations also impede the potential for robots to adapt to environments and solve physical problems. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to change that.
Nikhil Chaven-Dafle, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, is developing ways for robotic arms to manipulate objects and make use of their environment. For example, we humans take for granted our ability to screw a light bulb into a socket with one hand, while tightly gripping a ladder with the other. We are able to adapt our grip, orient objects and correct mistakes, like threading the light bulb incorrectly, and starting over. We interact with our environment and we use our environment to assist us in manipulating objects.
Certainly robots are capable of performing physical tasks. Car manufacturing assembly lines prove that robotic arms are highly efficient and capable of completing repetitive tasks. What Chaven-Dafle is developing is something new. He is working on ways for robotic arms to solve physical, not virtual, problems. Chaven-Dafle explained his project to TechCrunch saying, “We basically developed a formulation that allows robots to estimate how the forces and motions and contacts are going to be involved, and use this underlying model, it can predict how the object is going to move in the grasp.”
No word yet on whether robots are capable of manipulating objects in space, or even if that skill poses a threat to humanity. But robots have been safely handling all kinds of tools for quite some time in limited and highly fixed ways.