Why It’s So Hard For Robots To Get A Grip

Why It's So Hard For Robots To Get A Grip

Ken Goldberg, director of the People and Robots Initiative of CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, heads up a research team working on robotic grasping abilities, with the goal of eliminating manual tasks and other “household drudgework.” Robots may soon be implemented in “unstructured environments” such as homes and busy warehouses thanks to research projects such as this, according to the article.

Fast Company, January 12, 2017 – Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg is turning an empty coffee mug around and around in his hands. “Oh, it’s so complicated for a robot to be able to make sense of that kind of data,” he says, eyeing his fingers grasping the cup with a look of wonder. Artificial intelligence is taking on complex cognitive tasks, such as assisting in legal and medical research, but a manual job like picking up laundry off the floor is still science fiction. It’s a long way from Roomba to Rosie the Robot. Universities like Berkeley and Cornell and companies like Amazon and Toyota are working to close the gap with mechanical hands that approach human dexterity.

Success would unleash a new robotics revolution with positive effects like reducing household drudgework, and fraught effects such as eliminating jobs in places like warehouses. Machines have been taking over manual labor for centuries; but they’ve been limited to specific, predictable tasks, as in factories. “Parts are all in a given place,” says Goldberg. “You’re just doing repetitive motions, and you can spend a lot of time getting the repetitions really, really precise.” The challenge is in “unstructured environments,” like a messy home or busy warehouse, where different things are in different locations all the time.


“Grasping is something that’s very subtle and elusive,” Goldberg says. “Humans just don’t even think about it. If I want to pick something up, I just do it.” It’s an ostensibly simple task accomplished by a complex network of circuitry inside the mind. In lifting that mug, a person has to pick the best of many ways their fingers will fit around it, be it encircling the whole mug or grabbing some part of the handle. And which part, with which fingers, in which positions? Humans also have to factor in physics like friction and center of gravity.

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