Willow Garage Speeding Up AI Development With Open-Sourcing

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Willow Garage PR2 Robot
No one likes doing household chores, but most people don't have an alternative. But, according to a story from CBS News, a new robot generation led by the team at Silicon Valley's Willow Garage may be about to change that. And that high-tech breakthrough could also change everything.
Willow Garage's PR2 robot can shoot pool, bake cookies from scratch, and maybe, most importantly, can fetch and open a beer. It's the most advanced personal robot in a galaxy that isn't quite so far, far away according to a story from CBS News.

Steve Cousins, chief executive officer of Willow Garage, said, "This robot can do things that people can do." The real-world robot is the creation of Cousins' Silicon Valley company that is working to spawn a new industry in personal robots. Cousins said, "Think about Rosie from 'The Jetsons,' but maybe without the attitude. Rosie's a cartoon, right? But the idea that you can have a robotic device that can move around in a human space and do things for us is real. That's actually happening."

While fantasies of robotic maids may still be a dream, the field of robotics is progressing rapidly and the PR2, and the open source software, ROS from Willow Garage is at the center of that progress.

"Everybody's sharing software and we can make progress to this future where we see robots."

Until Willow Garage created the PR2, each robotics researcher had to build their own robot from scratch before they could even begin experimenting.

Pieter Abbeel, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, said, "You spent so much time building and maintaining that contraption that your research would be really slowed down." Abbeel got one of 11 PR2s that Willow Garage gave to university researchers who agreed to share their work to speed the evolution of artificial intelligence.

Robot and Frank
Robots like the one featured in the movie Robot and Frank may not be that far away according to CBS News.

Abbeel, who is behind the laundry folding work on the PR2 explains, "The big challenge in robotics right now is how to make robots deal with variability. Whenever things change around the robot, it needs to understand what it is that has changed and how to act on it. Any time you present a pile of laundry, it's going to be different. You're manipulating this towels, T-shirts, and so forth. The more variability, the harder the task is going to be."

To be of practical use in the home, robots need to figure out a changing world around them. To do that, the PR2 is loaded with sensors that scan its surroundings in 3D.

At the forefront of robotic help will be aid for senior citizens. Abbeel said, "If we can program a way for machines to learn, then they could have a lot more intellectual capabilities after a while." Researchers don't have to program everything the machine does -- they have to teach the machine to think by itself.

Abbeel said, "We want to allow the machine to watch people do things and learn from that. It just kind of fumbles around with things and after a while realizes, 'Oh, this is how this works.' "

While those tired of folding laundry may be tempted to buy a PR2, the $400,000 price tag is a bit steep. Still, with robotics advancing quickly, a future free of household chores may, one day, be possible.


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