Robots Do More Human Tasks Badly

Are we becoming too curmudgeonly? Fox News was pretty excited about the video above, showing a robot doing simple tasks that take it about ten times as long as a five year old and end up with poor quality results. “Are these robots making humans obsolete for home and repair tasks?” they asked breathlessly.

This is the Aloha project, with a pair of facing arms and improved grippers, an upgraded camera and sensors, and a gravity compensation system that helps keep the arms during teleoperation.


The videos above are identified as autonomous actions by the stationary Aloha. You can also see the Mobile Aloha doing quite a few tasks with teleoperation: that is, a human being stands nearby and performs the actions.

This is a lot like what a surgeon does with a robotic surgery tool, which makes a lot of sense. We’re not sure that is makes sense for cleaning a bathroom. The video below shows Aloha being teleoperate into doing a lot of household tasks. Again, not as well as a human and certainly not as fast, even though it is repeating the human’s actions. That means that it takes at least twice as long to do the task, because it takes up a human’s time as well as its own.

You can also see the gag reel of failures at the link above in case you want to see a robot toss a shrimp onto a counter.

In fairness, this is not a robot being sold to do all-purpose home and workplace tasks. This is a clever test of capacity asking the question: can an inexpensive robot learn to do a lot of things? The researchers at Stanford have come up with a useful algorithm that provides proof of concept for the idea of a single general purpose robot which is theoretically capable of learning to do a wide range of tasks without separate programming for each one.

In 20 years, when robotics companies have produced a viable robot butler or a handy machine that can be put on any production line, we may be able to look back at Aloha and marvel at how far it’s come.

Try it yourself

You can get the kit for Aloha to put together on your own from Trossen Robotics. It costs $30,000, but it does include a hex wrench.

You’ll need your own screw driver (the video showed two, actually) but then you can put it together in 30-45 minutes.


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