It’s become a veritable rite of passage for humans settling into their first apartments: Assemble a piece of Ikea furniture from a cryptic set of pictures without having either you, or the item in question, fall apart.
What better way, thought researchers at the University of Southern California, to torture teach robots to manipulate the world around them. Following in the footsteps of researchers who last year got robot arms to assemble those classic Stefan chairs (roboticists love Ikea), they’re gifting the robotics community with a new simulator to train robots how to assemble low-budget Swedish furniture. Ultimately, they hope machines will begin to approach our own dexterity and adaptability to novel objects. Ladies and gentlemen and robots, grab your Allen wrenches.
For you and me, assembling Ikea furniture is simultaneously simple and hellish: You lament the process, but your great big brain can (mostly) translate the abstract instructions into something real. You run into all kinds of problems, but your creativity surmounts them with ease; the Allen wrench cramps your hand, but your human powers of manipulation are unparalleled.
For a robot, this is all pure horror. Sure, robots have been working on assembly lines for decades, but they’re just the muscle. They lift big pieces like car doors into place, for instance, while humans take care of the fine manipulations, such as screwing in tiny parts. The robots’ environment is highly regimented, so the machines never have to improvise—even if they were smart enough to do so, their unpredictability would put their human coworkers at risk.
But if we want robots to be of any use in our homes, they have to be more flexible. And to get them there, perhaps they need to practice building Ikea furniture—a multifaceted problem that can teach the machines a multitude of lessons.
These researchers built their 3D digital playground by simulating the physics of the real world, like gravity and friction. They can also play with variables like lighting and textures. Into this environment they drop simulations of different robots, like the one-armed Sawyer and two-armed Baxter, and let them play with over 80 different chairs, tables, bookcases, and more. All of it is rendered by the game engine Unity, so we humans can see the robots’ progress.