Users can train Toyota's robot butler with virtual reality, showing him in advance the (even complicated) tasks he will have to perform.
Five years ago, Toyota announced a $ 1 billion commitment to its Research Institute (TRI) and has hired hundreds of engineers to work on robots and products based on artificial intelligence, such as self-driving cars.
This week, TRI offered journalists the opportunity to participate in a virtual open-house (you can watch a part in the video I put in the post) to know the state of the art of the research carried out by the laboratory.
Dear, did you buy a new chandelier or are you just glad to see me?
Most of the prototypes shown at the event are meant to help people in their homes. The idea of an assistant robot has been around for decades, but it has not long since begun to be plausible in reality, especially in countries like Japan, where an aging population could cause a shortage of support staff.
Toyota's robot butler
The main design of TRI's home robot is built to hang on a special set of rails built into the ceiling of a home. A real "pertinence" that operates within a limited (and therefore well controlled) range.
A little different from the robot butler we pictured roaming around the house with his nice tray in hand, but evidently Toyota saw a number of advantages. One of them is the small size of the house.
With this setup, the robot butler takes much less time to learn the layout of the house. He doesn't need to learn complex paths around obstacles to get from place to place.
TRI's robot can fold down to the ceiling when not in use, so it effectively takes up zero usable space.
A privileged view
One of the biggest advantages of this solution, however, seems to be the particular top-down point of view. It gives the machine a better point of view to observe its actions and the position of the different objects it may need to manipulate.
Toyota relies heavily on the vision of a butler robot that learns from a limited set of parameters. Basically, if you want the robot to learn how to clean countertops, you can perform that action in a virtual reality environment. The robot butler will understand your actions and imitate them in the real world, naturally monitoring the variables.
It may sound cumbersome, but it isn't. Consider that after a short time there would be many actions being taught to other robots and shared on the network, a bit like the automatic recipes of certain food robots.
How is the robot butler made?
Numerous joints in the robotic arm allow it to move in all directions. Some of the joints are redundant, which allows them to rotate and orient themselves in virtually any position.
There is only one detail to fine-tune now: to install such a robotic butler the whole house would essentially have to be designed around the machine.
Ideally, the robot would be a central part of the house's planning before construction begins.
For this I would say that the concept makes more sense in multi-unit buildings such as aged care facilities. If the builders could make the units look nearly identical inside, the engineers could train just one robot, then share the information with the rest of the machines in the other rooms.
In addition to the entire home bot, TRI also showed some minor aspects of this technology. One of the most important is the claw with which the robot butler will take items. A system of lights projects a series of points inside the robotic “hand” and a camera to observe how the points of the limb deform when it picks up an object.
As a result, the system can analyze, in real time, the properties of the object it is interacting with. The demo showed he stacked several delicate wine glasses on top of each other on an unknown surface.
Advances from Toyota and TRI are remarkable, and in the wake of enthusiasm they plan to continue working on this type of technology in the future. There are no plans to make it publicly available yet, but the company hopes to roll out at least some of these technologies in the near future.