Programming a cleaning bot

Who wouldn't want a robot to do all the cleaning?

Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington points out that getting a robot to clean would require much more than simply getting it to hold a tool to some surface.

She says, "Cleaning is different from other tasks we’ve thought about in robotics, which typically involved manipulating objects, or moving them place to place...There’s the angle, how much you’re pushing and pressure you’re applying, how fast you move it, how much you move it, and even the orientation [of the tool] relative to the dirt.”

And we need not stop there. There's the kind of mess (whether it's liquid or solid), the type of surface (whether it's rough or smooth, glass or cement), and many others. There are just so many variables to it that programming software to handle all of them is really a remarkably daunting robotics challenge. But as Cakmak might have said to herself: Challenge Accepted.

Machine Learning

To enable her robots to perform such tasks, she uses a technique called “Programming by Demonstration.” Using this, the machines learn by imitating a researcher performing several cleaning techniques via the robot’s vision system. Using a variety of cleaning attachments and colored aquarium crystals as the dirt in the tests, she and her team want to get the robot to generalize the cleaning motion from the human demonstration, and also correctly identify the “state of dirt” before and after the cleaning action.

We've a long way to go before we start seeing any Rosies zipping around the house. Not only are we still in the phase of manually teaching the bot how to perform the chores, but we also need to account for the bot's working environment.

Cakmak suggests that household robots can’t become truly autonomous until we redesign our houses to make them more machine-friendly. For instance, long hallways might require markings that a robot can read for geolocation purposes.

Still, with the huge potential to enhance quality of life and increase independence for people living with disabilities, researchers are still taking on the enormous task of surmounting this challenge.

So for now, don't throw away your brooms just yet. We're going to have to wait a bit more.


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