MIT Wants to Teach Robots to Do Your Chores


Teaching a robot basic human tasks is more of a challenge than it seems. To teach a robot to pour you a glass of orange juice, for instance, the 'bot has to not just recognize the command to take the juice out of the fridge and pour it into a glass, but it has to understand the many tiny aspects of the task that the human brain infers—like, say, the steps where you have to walk into the kitchen, open the cupboard, and grab an empty glass.

VirtualHome, a 3D virtual environment created by MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with researchers at the University of Toronto, is designed to teach robots exactly how to accomplish household tasks like pouring juice. The simulator acts as a training ground for artificial intelligence, turning a large set of household tasks into robot-friendly, sequence-by-sequence programs.

First, researchers created a knowledge base that the AI would use to perform tasks [PDF]. The researchers asked participants on Amazon's Mechanical Turk to come up with descriptions of household activities, like making coffee or turning on the television, and describe the steps. Their descriptions naturally didn't include some of the steps that a robot would need, since they were composed as if speaking to another human—the "watch TV" command didn't include some obvious steps a robot might need, like "walk over to the TV" or "sit on the sofa and watch." They then had the same participants generate programs for these tasks using a simple system designed to teach young kids how to code. All told, they created more than 2800 programs for household tasks.

An avatar sets the table in a simulated dining room.

Then, the researchers tested these programs in a Sims-inspired virtual home to see if the crowd-sourced instructions could work to train robots. They turned the programs into videos in which a virtual agent would execute the household task based on the code.

The researchers were focused on creating a virtual environment that could serve as a dataset for future AI training, rather than training any actual robots right now. But their model is designed so that one day, artificial intelligence could be trained by someone who isn't a robotics expert, converting natural language commands into robot-friendly code.

In the future, they hope to be able to turn videos from real life into similar programs, so that a robot could learn to do simple tasks by watching a YouTube video. An artificial intelligence system like Amazon's Alexa wouldn't need to be programmed by its manufacturer to do every single task—it could learn on the fly, without waiting for a developer to create a new skill.

The Reason Why Your Car’s Turn Signal Makes a Clicking Sound

Zmaj88, iStock / Getty Images Plus
Zmaj88, iStock / Getty Images Plus

The clicking of a turn signal ranks among the least-annoying sounds a car can make. Along with the flashing bulb behind the arrow in your car's dashboard, the gentle, rhythmic tick tick tick-ing tones are a sign that your blinker is working properly when you switch it on. Even as technology has progressed, this feature has remained a constant throughout generations of vehicles—or at least that's how it appears to drivers. According to Jalopnik, there's one thing that has changed, though: the actual source of that familiar sound.

The flashing turn signals began appearing in automobiles in the late 1930s when Buick made them standard in some models. Traditionally, the clicking sound is made via heat. Drivers would switch on their blinker, and the electricity would heat up a bimetallic spring in the car, causing it to bend until it made contact with a small strip of metal. When these two components connected, a current would pass through them and power the electric turn signal lights. The bimetallic spring quickly cooled down and returned to its original form, turning off the light, before the whole process started again to create a new flash. As the spring bent back and forth, it created a clicking sound.

The next evolution of turn signals used a similar trick, but instead of moving a spring due to heat, it sent the electronic pulse to an electromagnet via a chip. When activated, the electromagnet pulled up a metal armature and disconnected the current powering the light (or the opposite, depending on the relay setup). Without the pulse from the chip, the electromagnet turned off and the armature returned to old position and bridged the circuit providing power to the bulbs. As was the case with the thermal spring, the relay clicked every time it moved.

Up until recently, this was how most car turn signals functioned, but things have changed as cars have become more computerized. Many car manufactured today rely on computer commands to activate their turn signals, skipping processes that once produced the distinctive clicks. But the clicking sounds are something people grew up with, and drivers might be unsettled if they heard nothing after activating their blinkers. That's why the mechanical sound still exists in the computer era—even though in many modern cars, it's actually just being broadcast through the vehicle's audio system.

For a visual of how electronic flasher signal systems work in cars, check out the video below.

[h/t Jalopnik]

Sony Is Celebrating the Walkman’s 40th Birthday With a Retrospective Exhibition in Tokyo

Joost J. Bakker, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Joost J. Bakker, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Before the dawn of CD players, mp3 players, and iTunes, cassette tape players dominated the music scene. The Walkman was the most prolific among them, and as designboom reports, Sony is hosting a retrospective to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the gadget's debut.

The Walkman first appeared in stores in Japan on July 1, 1979—just a few months after Sony cofounder Masaru Ibuka (who had already retired at that point) asked Sony executives to create a lightweight cassette player that would allow him to listen to music on long flights. The product was an instant hit, helping make cassette tapes more popular than vinyl and introducing many consumers to portable, personal devices for the first time.

Four decades later, the Walkman is no longer the hottest music technology on the market, but its impact on the industry is undeniable. Sony's new exhibit, titled "#009 WALKMAN IN THE PARK 40 Years Since the Day the Music Walked," explores that legacy. At Ginza Sony Park in Tokyo's Ginza district, visitors can experience the exhibit in two parts. The first is "My Story, My Walkman," which features the stories of 40 celebrities whose lives were changed by the Walkman. The second section is a "Walkman Wall" where about 230 models of the Walkman, from the original cassette players to CD and MP3 players, are on display.

The exhibit opened on July 1, the Walkman's anniversary, and will continue through September 1. Anyone can explore the Tokyo retrospective for free from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

[h/t designboom]