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Robots excel at carrying out specialized tasks in controlled environments, but put them in your average office and they’d be lost. Alphabet wants to change that by developing what they call the Everyday Robot, which could learn to help us out with our daily chores.
For a long time most robots were painstakingly hand-coded to carry out their functions, but since the deep learning revolution earlier this decade there’s been a growing effort to imbue them with AI that lets them learn new tasks through experience.
That’s led to some impressive breakthroughs, like a robotic hand nimble enough to solve a Rubik’s cube and a robotic arm that can accurately toss bananas across a room.
And it turns out Alphabet’s early-stage research and development division, Alphabet X, has also secretly been using similar machine learning techniques to develop robots adaptable enough to carry out a range of tasks in cluttered and unpredictable human environments like homes and offices.
The robots they’ve built combine a wheeled base with a single arm and a head full of sensors (including LIDAR) for 3D scanning, borrowed from Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo.
At the minute, though, they’re largely restricted to sorting trash for recycling, project leader Hans Peter Brondmo writes in a blog post. While that might sound mundane, identifying different kinds of trash, grasping it, and moving it to the correct bin is still a difficult thing for a robot to do consistently. Some of the robots also have to navigate around the office to sort trash at various recycling stations.
Alphabet says even its human staff were getting it wrong 20 percent of the time, but after several months of training the robots have managed to get that down to 3.5 percent.
Every day, 30 robots toil away in what’s been dubbed the “playpen” sorting trash, and then every night thousands of virtual robots continue to practice in a simulation. This experience is then used to update the robots’ control algorithms each night. All the robots also share their experiences with the others through a process called collaborative learning.
The process isn’t flawless, though. Simonite notes that while the robots exhibit some uncannily smart behaviors, like stirring piles of rubbish to make it easier to grab specific items, they also frequently miss or fumble the objects they’re trying to grasp.
Nonetheless, the project’s leaders are happy with their progress so far. And the hope is that creating robots that are able to learn from little more than experience in complex environments like an office should be a first step towards general-purpose robots that can pick up a variety of useful skills to assist humans.
Taking that next step will be the major test of the project. So far there’s been limited evidence that experience gained by robots in one task can be transferred to learning another. That’s something the group hopes to demonstrate next year.
And it seems there may be more robot news coming out of Alphabet X soon. The group has several other robotics “moonshots” in the pipeline, built on technology and talent transferred over in 2016 from the remains of a broadly unsuccessful splurge on robotics startups by former Google executive Andy Rubin.
Whether this robotics renaissance at Alphabet will finally help robots break into our homes and offices remains to be seen, but with the resources they have at hand, they just may be able to make it happen.
Image Credit: Everyday Robot, Alphabet X Continue reading
This is part one of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.
We’re in the middle of a boom time for natural language processing (NLP), the field of computer science that focuses on linguistic interactions between humans and machines. Thanks to advances in machine learning over the past decade, we’ve seen vast improvements in speech recognition and machine translation software. Language generators are now good enough to write coherent news articles, and virtual agents like Siri and Alexa are becoming part of our daily lives.
Most trace the origins of this field back to the beginning of the computer age, when Alan Turing, writing in 1950, imagined a smart machine that could interact fluently with a human via typed text on a screen. For this reason, machine-generated language is mostly understood as a digital phenomenon—and a central goal of artificial intelligence (AI) research.
This six-part series will challenge that common understanding of NLP. In fact, attempts to design formal rules and machines that can analyze, process, and generate language go back hundreds of years.
Attempts to design formal rules and machines that can analyze, process, and generate language go back hundreds of years.
While specific technologies have changed over time, the basic idea of treating language as a material that can be artificially manipulated by rule-based systems has been pursued by many people in many cultures and for many different reasons. These historical experiments reveal the promise and perils of attempting to simulate human language in non-human ways—and they hold lessons for today’s practitioners of cutting-edge NLP techniques.
The story begins in medieval Spain. In the late 1200s, a Jewish mystic by the name of Abraham Abulafia sat down at a table in his small house in Barcelona, picked up a quill, dipped it in ink, and began combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in strange and seemingly random ways. Aleph with Bet, Bet with Gimmel, Gimmel with Aleph and Bet, and so on.
Abulafia called this practice “the science of the combination of letters.” He wasn’t actually combining letters at random; instead he was carefully following a secret set of rules that he had devised while studying an ancient Kabbalistic text called the Sefer Yetsirah. This book describes how God created “all that is formed and all that is spoken” by combining Hebrew letters according to sacred formulas. In one section, God exhausts all possible two-letter combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.
By studying the Sefer Yetsirah, Abulafia gained the insight that linguistic symbols can be manipulated with formal rules in order to create new, interesting, insightful sentences. To this end, he spent months generating thousands of combinations of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and eventually emerged with a series of books that he claimed were endowed with prophetic wisdom.
For Abulafia, generating language according to divine rules offered insight into the sacred and the unknown, or as he put it, allowed him to “grasp things which by human tradition or by thyself thou would not be able to know.”
Combining letters to generate language allows thou to “grasp things which by human tradition or by thyself thou would not be able to know.”
—Abraham Abulafia, mystic
But other Jewish scholars considered this rudimentary language generation a dangerous act that bordered on the profane. The Talmud tells stories of rabbis who, by the magical act of permuting language according to the formulas set out in the Sefer Yetsirah, created artificial creatures called golems. In these tales, rabbis manipulated the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to replicate God’s act of creation, using the sacred formulas to imbue inanimate objects with life.
In some of these myths, the rabbis used this skill for practical reasons, to make animals to eat when hungry or servants to help them with domestic duties. But many of these golem stories end badly. In one particularly well-known fable, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the 16th century rabbi of Prague, used the sacred practice of letter combinatorics to conjure a golem to protect the Jewish community from antisemitic attacks, only to see the golem turn violently on him instead.
This “science of the combination of letters” was a rudimentary form of natural language processing, as it involved combining letters of the Hebrew alphabet according to specific rules. For Kabbalists, it was a double-edged sword: a way to access new forms of knowledge and wisdom, but also an inherently dangerous practice that could bring about unintended consequences.
This tension reappears throughout the long history of language processing, and still echoes in discussions about the most cutting-edge NLP technology of our digital era.
This is the first installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Come back next Monday for part two, “In the 17th Century, Leibniz Dreamed of a Machine That Could Calculate Ideas.”
You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI. Continue reading