Robot, Make Me A Sandwich! Tell Me Dave Is A Robot That Can Do Pretty Much Whatever You Order It To

Pretty soon, you might be asking robots to clean up after you and prepare your meals. At least, that's the future that's going to come about if researchers at Cornell University have their way. They're using human volunteers as part of a project called Tell Me Dave (pretty sure that's a throwback to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which makes it even more awesome). With the help of their volunteers, they're slowly but surely teaching robots how to infer actions based on relatively vague human commands - for example "go pick that pen up" instead of "move one foot, move arm five inches, and retrieve pen." 

Once their technology reaches fruition, human beings will eventually be able to make requests of robots in the same fashion as they would a human servant. A robot could, for example, be asked to go clean up a mess made by a pet, or to prepare a particular type of meal for dinner.  Pretty cool, right?

So how do the robots recognize and execute these commands? 

At its core, the process involves a robot translating a loose request into a set of step-by-step commands. Thankfully, though, it doesn't appear to be quite that simple. According to the researchers it isn't just a matter of hard-coding the commands into the robot. The machine needs to learn to be aware of its surroundings, then it needs to be equipped with enough processing power that it can learn to use those surroundings to the fullest.

Take the video above, where a human customer asks for an afffogato - the robot, which has learned the recipe, uses what's at hand to fulfill its guest's request. Impressive though the video may be, the researchers say that Tell Me Dave is still very much a work in progress.

"We're not quite at 100% accuracy yet," they explained. "But, interestingly, the robot performed the right steps 64 percent of the time even when the commands changed and the entire scene was reorganized. There is still room for improvement," they added.

"In order for robots to perform tasks in real world, they need to be able to understand our natural language commands. While there is a lot of past research that went into the task of language parsing, they often require the instructions to be spelled out in full detail which makes it difficult to use them in real world situations," they continued. "Our goal is to enable robots to even take an ill-specified instruction as generic as ‘Make a cup of coffee' and be able to figure out how to fill a cup with milk or use one if it already has milk etc. depending on how the environment looks."

If you want to sign up to teach Dave a thing or to yourself, then you can visit the project website here. There, you'll find a video game of sorts, one which will allow you to train the robot to do everything from making food to changing the channels on a television set. Give it a try - it's actually pretty fun, and you're contributing to the advancement of science (presumably). 

Well...unless you just kind of flail about and break things.  That...wouldn't really be all that useful.