back to article It's a mug's game: Watch AI robot grab a cuppa it hasn't seen before

A trio of researchers have trained a robot that can pick up new objects it hasn’t seen before. It’s a trivial task for humans yet an incredibly complex one for machines. When people reach out to grab a mug, it’s common sense to hold it by its handle - it doesn’t matter if the mug is upright, upside down, or tipped on its side …

  1. Andy Mac
    Terminator

    And they dare to call this “AI”.

    1. jmch Silver badge

      To be fair, recognising an object, understanding what type of material it's likely to be made of and identifying the best way to pick it up requires a LOT of brainpower and experience. Anyone reading this for whom this is a trivial exercise has spent the first few years of their life training for around 12 hours day learning how to recognise, identify and manipulate objects.

      If this robot can identify an object to be picked up and autonomously work out what's the best way to pick it up based only on being shown how to do and on past experience picking up objects, it's demonstrating signs of intelligence, however basic.

      1. Ragarath

        To be even fairer I'm still training the young ones 11 years on what they can and cannot touch/do safely/in the right way.

        Learning these things is a constant evolution that we experience throughout our lives. If you put me in Cern I would not know what I could and could not touch unless being told. Same I guess applies to new born robots. The interesting part comes from me knowing, hmm that looks dodgy (from previous experience / learning) and asking how it is to be done right and then learning from that.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          > I would not know what I could and could not touch unless being told.

          That's why AIs need lugholes - so you can give them a clip around the ear when they touch something they shouldn't - call it Apprentice Intelligence (AI)

    2. MonkeyCee Silver badge

      It's certainly AI

      It's applied AI. I mean, it's a *very* broad term, and many people assume AI == General AI, which is never the case. General AI is a human like (or probably very different, but human capable) intelligence. This isn't it :)

      But it is one of those practical applications of AI techniques, and getting anything working in the real world is quite tricky. Hence why solving games, even complex games, is relatively* trivial, but getting a robot to do a random task that a four year old can do is extremely difficult. Like 2-3 engineers minimum, unless you've got mechanical, electrical and robotics for the hardware, and programming, image processing and modeling for the back end in a single person.

      Oh, and a four year old can do natural language processing better than an adult, and certainly better than any current AI

      Nice to see some news being covered about actual applied robotics. Too much press coverage is "Westworld or bust".

      * Specifically, building an agent that can play the game in the 95th percentile can be achieved by self play, which is mainly a matter of throwing time, hardware and efficient coding at the problem.

    3. Alister Silver badge

      And they dare to call this “AI”.

      But this is AI, the actual level of competence of real AI, and not just data-mining, which is what the marketing types have hijacked the term to mean.

      This is a computer learning from a mixture of teaching and its own experience, and is what real AI should be.

  2. Matt Collins

    Meh

    Let's see it pick up a cup of tea by the saucer.

    1. onefang Silver badge

      Re: Meh

      Let's see it pick up several mugs, suspending each on a different finger, so you can carry them all to the kitchen sink.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Meh

        No the real test (with an IT angle) would be to present it with one of the INMOS T9000 promotional 4 handled mugs - they had slogan "Multiprocessing made easy" on the cup ... to which most people added "Drinking made impossible"!

      2. John 110
        Pint

        Re: Meh

        Let's see it bring 4 pints from the bar without taking a sip from each... to prevent spillage obviously.

      3. John Tserkezis

        Re: Meh

        "Let's see it pick up several mugs, suspending each on a different finger, so you can carry them all to the kitchen sink."

        That's only half the job, let me know when it's ready to acually wash the dishes.

    2. Flywheel Silver badge

      Re: Meh

      .. and dunk a chocolate digestive - not a chocolate hobnob - without it dissolving into the cup - that would be true AI!

    3. VinceH Silver badge
      WTF?

      Re: Meh

      "Let's see it pick up a cup of tea by the saucer."

      Well, unless I blinked, we didn't even see it pick up the mug - only look at it briefly before the video cut to it (initially) failing to pick up a cuddly toy.

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "It takes about 20 minutes for the robot to train on a new object"

    Well, seems that the cleaning bot is a ways off yet. At that speed, it'll never manage to clean a teens' room before the teen has made a whole new mess.

    1. onefang Silver badge

      Re: "It takes about 20 minutes for the robot to train on a new object"

      I have images of a cleaning robot following a teen to clean up their mess, followed by the teens sibling making a new mess, followed by their mother telling both "Don't make me follow you around, cleaning up your messes.", and a smug looking father with a screwdriver and a floppy disk in hand working on the next robot, teaching it to fetch a beer.

    2. Flywheel Silver badge

      Re: "It takes about 20 minutes for the robot to train on a new object"

      "it'll never manage to clean a teens' room before the teen has made a whole new mess"

      ..unless it's a Spot Mini with head-mounted laser. There'll be a slight smell of burning after the cleaning but probably not worse than the stale trainer smell.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hats with brims? Haven't seen anyone wearing one of those in decades - except in a few cases of uniforms. Did they mean the "peak" - a more likely modern head gear of a baseball cap.

    1. jmch Silver badge
      Devil

      "Hats with brims? Haven't seen anyone wearing one of those in decades"

      Not been anywhere sunny recently? Wedding? Visiting the queen?

      1. onefang Silver badge

        "Not been anywhere sunny recently? Wedding? Visiting the queen?"

        Or lived here in sub-tropical Australia, where all the school kids wear wide brimmed hats (part of the uniform), and every one else is encouraged to wear wide brim hats, to help keep that nasty skin cancer inducing strong sun off our pretty faces. I can see one from where I sit, and I know there's another one on top of that cupboard over there. I may have a third one stored under the bed, but I might have thrown it away.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          > here in sub-tropical Australia, where all the school kids wear wide brimmed hats (part of the uniform)

          Please tell me they have corks ......

          1. onefang Silver badge

            "Please tell me they have corks ......"

            I can only vouch for the local schools, where I regularly see the kids wandering the streets in their uniforms, no corks sorry. Though about half of those schools are upper class schools, who wouldn't be seen dead dangling corks from their hats.

            Corks tend to be more popular where flies are a problem, and we don't have a fly problem in my part of this city.

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      I believe the traditional 'cowboy hat' is still worn in many places in the US.

      Wouldn't a hard-hat be said to have a brim?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "Wouldn't a hard-hat be said to have a brim?"

        Depends on the style - Bob the builder wears one that has a peak.

  5. jmch Silver badge

    Common sense?

    "When people reach out to grab a mug, it’s common sense to hold it by its handle - it doesn’t matter if the mug is upright, upside down, or tipped on its side."

    Erm... no, just simply no. The handle is there to be able to hold a mug of scalding tea without burning your hand. In fact many 'designer' mugs have a handle that is either too thin, or in a fancy shape, or both, which makes it more difficult to handle or prone to slipping, because apparently the traditional 'ear' shape which offers an ideal grip and balance is too uncool.

    Since I like my warm beverages to be warm rather than scalding, I also usually find it quite convenient to grab the whole mug in one hand, which avoids the issue of a heavy-ish mass pivoting around fingers, and works very comfortably for all but the biggest mugs (I guess this might be an individual preference depending on hand size vs mug size). When handling empty mugs I find this is also the most convenient way.

    Just allow the robots some freedom and they can think about it for 20 minutes and work out for themselves the best way to pick it up that works for them.

    1. onefang Silver badge

      Re: Common sense?

      "Just allow the robots some freedom and they can think about it for 20 minutes and work out for themselves the best way to pick it up that works for them."

      But after 20 minutes the coffee / hot chocolate / soup / tea will be cold.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Common sense?

      "Just allow the robots some freedom and they can think about it for 20 minutes and work out for themselves the best way to pick it up that works for them"

      If it was real AI it would be spending 20 mintues thinking "why you want dried leaves in boiling water." to put in the mug!

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Common sense?

        If it was real AI it would be thinking - why am I picking up a cup of tea that I can't drink ?

  6. Ian Johnston Silver badge

    OK, so it seems that as long as it knows an object is a shoe, and as long as that shoe has a tongue, and as long as it can spend twenty minutes working out where the tongue is, it can pick up the shoe by the tongue. I'm astounded and I welcome our new robot overlords.

    Anyone else thinking of the roman centurion in "Asterix the Gaul" who thinks he has drunk magic potion and shouts "I am a superman" when, after trying progressively smaller objects, he manages to pick up a fist-sized stone?

  7. Tolly Poynbee

    Let’s see it reach down the side of the sofa and, without looking or spilling, locate a full glass of wine by touch alone, grab it, take a sneaky gulp and put it back on the floor. All without the wife noticing.

  8. ArrZarr Silver badge
    Boffin

    "A trivial task for humans"

    Not really, we spend years learning how to pick stuff up, just like how we spend years learning our first language or to just walk.

    And the above is within a system where the generic feedback loop of failure and success is a solved problem unlike in the field of AI.

    Picking up a cup of tea is surprisingly difficult when you look at all the actions required.

    1. Move your arm to exactly the right place - one inch any way and you're either missing the handle or knocking over the cup.

    2. Figure out how many fingers will be comfortable in the cup handle and insert them into the hole - often there's much less than a centimetre of leeway.

    3. Exert the right amount of pressure between fingers in the handle and below the handle to keep the cup balanced and level while it makes the perilous journey between mat and mouth.

    This is only possible due to how astoundingly complicated and sensitive our nervous system is as you have a good idea where any part of your body is even if you can't see it due to the stresses and strains on the rest of your body which your brain then interprets.

    That's not to say those pulling all nighters via egregious use of coffee can't do all these actions on autopilot, but it did take literal years to get the ability to figure out all the steps for themselves.

  9. Efer Brick

    What does a robot want with a cup of tea anyway?

    Shirley, a mug of WD40 is more appropriate.

    1. onefang Silver badge

      Re: What does a robot want with a cup of tea anyway?

      "Shirley, a mug of WD40 is more appropriate."

      With or without milk, sugar, and / or a Tim Tam?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What does a robot want with a cup of tea anyway?

      "Shirley, a mug of WD40 is more appropriate"

      That's the equivalent of vintage champagne.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: What does a robot want with a cup of tea anyway?

        and don't call me shirley

  10. Gasp!

    Tea

    I can see the Terminator killing people with endless cups of tea now, a horrifying future with no biscuits - go on take a cup of tea!

  11. katrinab Silver badge

    Couple of questions

    How does it cope with for example a Chelsea Boot that doesn't have a tongue.

    How does it cope with a shoe that is upside down and positioned such that the tongue isn't immediately accessible to the robot's fingers?

    1. onefang Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Couple of questions

      "How does it cope with for example a Chelsea Boot that doesn't have a tongue."

      And thongs, don't forget thongs. Though knowing that the non-Aussie world calls them flip-flops, and think that thongs are an item of underwear, would the bots get confused and emulate the pussy grabbing antics of Mr Trump?

      My other question is, are tongues the usual way of picking up shoes? I'm not into shoes, being mostly barefoot, so maybe I'm doing it wrong?

      We need to teach these bots to pick up coats next, I'll get mine.

      1. katrinab Silver badge

        Re: Couple of questions

        I think I usually pick them up by the back of the heel, but I'm not really sure, and I would probably do it differently if I thought about it consciously.

        Or, if I am taking shoes from the pile at the bottom of my wardrobe, then whichever bit is closest to me.

      2. Alister Silver badge

        Re: Couple of questions

        My other question is, are tongues the usual way of picking up shoes?

        I think you would only pick up a shoe by its tongue if it is as a preparation to putting it on your foot, (you would normally pull the tongue towards the front of the shoe to open up the aperture to put your foot in).

        You know what, thinking about it the above is wrong, and that yes you would normally pick up a single shoe by putting one or more fingers under the tongue.

        For a pair of shoes, side-by-side, I would tend to put my fingers in one shoe, and my thumb in the other, and pinch the sides together to lift both.

  12. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921

    Just like Tinder then.

  13. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    They called it 'DON"

    Now, if someone could just train the other Don to pick up a book.

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