Ordinarily, industrial robots are precisely programmed to perform certain tasks. Robots that run on artificial intelligence, on the other hand, often learn tasks through a process of trial and error. The new Blue robot is specifically designed for the latter, and it should be much more affordable than other AI machines.
Blue is being developed at the University of California-Berkeley, by a team led by Prof. Pieter Abbeel, postdoctoral research fellow Stephen McKinley, and graduate student David Gealy. It can master new tasks either through deep reinforcement learning (trial and error, in other words), or by being guided through the required motions by a human trainer using handheld controllers.
Because Blue may make some mistakes while it's still in the learning process, it has been designed to not accidentally hurt people working nearby. To that end, its two mostly-plastic arms can easily be pushed away if they stray toward bystanders, plus they'll simply stop before causing damage if they meet with immovable objects. Additionally, they have rounded edges and a minimum of pinch points, to lessen the chances of catching fingers.
In order to keep Blue open to performing a variety of tasks, it's also been designed with a wide range of motion – similar to that of human shoulders, elbows and wrists, making the training process more intuitive. That said, its movements aren't as precise as those of a regular armed robot. According to the scientists, the intelligence with which it performs tasks should make up for the cost-saving lack of mechanical precision.
Blue also isn't as strong as some other robots. It can continually hold a maximum weight of 2 kg (4.4 lb) with one arm fully extended, and like a person, it is capable of lifting heavier weights in quick bursts. In such cases, once the arm's motors reach their thermal limit after a short time, the arm needs to rest in order to cool down.
"Essentially, we can get more out of a weaker robot," says Gealy. "And a weaker robot is just safer. The strongest robot is most dangerous. We wanted to design the weakest robot that could still do really useful stuff."
Blue is now being commercially developed by spinoff company Berkeley Open Arms, which is aiming at a price tag of around US$5,000 – beta units have already been shipped to early adopters. Ultimately, it is hoped that the device could be used by institutions conducting research on robotics AI, and eventually even by regular people in their own homes.
You can see Blue in action, in the video below.
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