They're mundane, yet daunting tasks: Tidying a messy room. Assembling a bookshelf from a kit of parts. Fetching a hairbrush for someone who can't do it herself.
What if a robot could do it for you?
Cornell University Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ashutosh Saxena is working to bring such robots into homes and offices. He leads Cornell's Personal Robotics Lab, which develops software for complex, high-level robotics. Among the lab's goals are programming robots that can clean up a disheveled room, assemble an Ikea bookshelf and load and unload a dishwasher—all without human intervention.
"Just like people buy a car, I envision that in five to 10 years, people will buy an assistive robot that will be cheaper or about the same cost as a car,"Saxena says.
One of the biggest technical challenges is endowing robots with the ability to learn in uncertain environments. It's one thing to make a robot do simple tasks: Pick up this pen. Move to the left. Do a 360. It's quite another to make a robot understand how to pick up an object it's never encountered or navigate a room it's never seen.
Saxena has researched how to make robots perceive information in cluttered and unknown environments. His work also has enabled robots to estimate depth from a single image. Using a camera, one robot evaluates an object—say, a cup or plate—and figures out how best to grab it. This technology will eventually integrate into the full-fledged dishwasher-loading robot.
Graduate students Congcong Li and Adarsh Kowdle presented these projects at the European Conference on Computer Vision, held in Greece Sept. 5-11, and will present again at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Vancouver this December.