The dream of an intelligent robot butler that can do the household chores may still be decades away, but a team of roboticists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute is doing their part to make it a reality.
HERB – the Home Exploring Robotic Butler – is one of dozens of robots to come out of CMU’s Personal Robotics lab, and its latest trick is separating Oreo cookies in a response to Nabisco’s Cookie vs. Creme challenge.
HERB, which speaks with a synthetic British accent and looks related to the Mars rover, started off as a Segway-powered one-armed bandit that could locate and grasp coffee mugs or open kitchen cabinets. It has since been upgraded with an additional arm and three-fingered hands, and a sensor head equipped with cameras and Kinect-like sensors to help it interpret its surroundings and take on more complex tasks.
Food giant Nabisco’s marketing stunt, which tasks inventive people with too much time on their hands to build an Oreo-separating machine, seemed like a good opportunity to put HERB’s sensing and manipulation capabilities to the test. There’s a lot that goes into the action: HERB must find the cookie using object detection and identification, position its hand above it just right to actually grab it, and then gently but firmly twist the cookie apart with its other hand. And what about that bit of creme that refuses to budge? It’s carefully scraped from the cookie using a mandolin.
The demonstration recalls those by Japanese roboticists who have been working on household robots for years, such as WENDY (build at Waseda University in 1998) that could crack open an egg, and its successor TWENDY-ONE (2007) that could butter your toast.
The problem with these butler robots is they are quite limited in what they can actually do, and are still far too expensive to be practical for the masses. Late last year, however, Toyota unveiled what they call a Human Support Robot that seems promising – but which would have to be heavily subsidized by insurance companies to be rolled out in any significant capacity.