Last week, on the third floor of a small building in San Francisco's Mission District, a woman scrambled the tiles of a Rubik's Cube and placed it in the palm of a robotic hand.
The hand began to move, gingerly spinning the tiles with its thumb and four long fingers. Each movement was small, slow and unsteady. But soon, the colors started to align. Four minutes later, with one more twist, it unscrambled the last few tiles, and a cheer went up from a long line of researchers watching nearby.
The researchers worked for a prominent artificial intelligence lab, OpenAI, and they had spent several months training their robotic hand for this task.
Though it could be dismissed as an attention-grabbing stunt, the feat was another step forward for robotics research. Many researchers believe it was an indication that they could train machines to perform far more complex tasks. That could lead to robots that can reliably sort through packages in a warehouse or to cars that can make decisions on their own.
"Solving a Rubik's Cube is not very useful, but it shows how far we can push these techniques," said Peter Welinder, one of the researchers who worked on the project. "We see this as a path to robots that can handle a wide variety of tasks."
The project was also a way for OpenAI to promote itself as it seeks to attract the money and the talent needed to push this sort of research forward. The techniques under development at labs like OpenAI are enormously expensive — both in equipment and personnel — and for that reason, eye-catching demonstrations have become a staple of serious A.I. research.
From The New York Times
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