Babies don’t get the idea of ownership. First, they don’t think about what’s theirs and what belongs to others at all. They don’t mind being passed around to total strangers, they don’t get attached to their toys, and they don’t care whose clothes they’re wearing. Then they realize that some particular woman is their mother, and they feel like any toy they pick up belongs to them. They say, “Mine!” a lot. At last, usually in time for kindergarten, they get the idea that this school cubby is theirs and the one next to theirs belongs to their buddy Nathan.
Now robots can grasp this, too.
The concept of meum et tuum may not be high on your wish list for robots. You might prefer to have robots that can move from one workstation to another without falling over, or robots that can sort fruit even if it’s not all round. But researchers at Yale University have figured out how to help robots learn not to mess with other people’s stuff.
For example, a researcher put multi colored blocks on a table and played only with the red ones. He told he robot to clear the table. When the robot removed a red block, the researcher objected, saying, “That’s mine. Don’t throw away my blocks.”
Later, another researcher asked the robot to clear the table. The robot said it couldn’t throw away the red blocks, because they belonged to the first researcher. Identifying ownership on the basis of people’s actions allows the robot to learn what belongs to whom. Some of the details are specifically programmed, but others allow the robot to determine the probability that a given item belongs to a given person.
The robot in the experiments was Baxter, a famous collaborative robot, but other robots can use the software. The idea is that industrial robots will be able to clear up a workstation without removing personal belongings, or to share tools with humans without overstepping boundaries.
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