Too Lazy To Make Your Own Pancakes? There’s A Robot For That

Many tasks that come easily to humans, even young children, are exceedingly difficult in robotics. Things that fall under the banner of ‘common sense’ for a human might require hours of explicit programming for a robot. For this reason, engineers are hard at work developing robots that can be taught through experience and observation. Their first order of business? A robot that can make pancakes and pizza. Sounds like these researchers have got their priorities in order.

Pancake flipping in action: a robotic pancake chef demonstrates a new advanced method of robot learning.Pancake flipping in action: a robotic pancake chef demonstrates a new advanced method of robot learning.

The chef robot is the result of RoboHow, a four year European research project that serves to produce robots able to carry out every day human activities – cooking, tidying, and so on. Indeed, the project defines its vision as the production of “a cognitive robot that autonomously performs complex everyday manipulation tasks and extends its repertoire of such by acquiring new skills using web-enabled and experience-based learning as well as by observing humans.” Essentially, the researchers involved want to produce robots that can learn like humans. When faced with a task we have never encountered before, we search our memory banks for relevant situations and apply this previous knowledge to the task at hand. Typically, robots do not interact with the world in this way. They are programmed at ‘birth’ for a specific task. This is an extremely efficient way to build robots designed for manufacturing automobiles, for example, where a very simple set of instructions is performed over and over again.

As we become more comfortable with robotics, however, demands are changing and advance-programming a robot’s behavior may no longer be the most practical solution. A domestic robot that needs to know how to cook a variety of meals, clean an entire house, walk a dog, and take out the garbage would take a huge amount of time and resources to be pre-programmed. And even then, it would experience the machine version of panic when faced with an unexpected event. What if the dog chases a squirrel? What if someone put the laundry detergent back in the wrong cupboard? Clearly, if our future is going to involve greater interaction with robots, a new programming model must be devised. This is the vital work of RoboHow.

Cooking pancakes, while an extremely basic task, actually requires quite a number of specific instructions and precise manipulations. Mixing batter, getting the griddle to the correct heat, flipping the delicious foodstuff at the right time and without dropping it, determining when it’s cooked through and not yet burned. Even holding the spatula with the correct grip is not intuitive for a machine. With that in mind, the pancake-making PR2 is an impressive collaboration of engineering and computer science. According to the project website, the advantages of this research are manifold. Using the results modelled by the robo-chef, scientists are now able to “(i) extend the scope of existing robotic applications, (ii) drastically decrease the development time for a new application, (iii) increase the robustness of the task execution in realistic environments involving knowledge gaps, ambiguities and unmodeled situations.”

While the robotic chef has clearly been developed as a prototype to demonstrate the robustness of the new programming and development construct, I, for one, am already quite satisfied with the results. A robot that can make pancakes and pizza? Does it get any better than that?

Read more at the official project website and at TechExplore and check out a video of pancake making in action below.