Future Tense

Finally, a Robot That Knows When You Want It to Pour You a Beer

Robot pours beer, misses mug.


Screenshot / Cornell Personal Robotics Lab via YouTube

What’s better than a robot that can serve you beer? How about a robot that can tell when you’re about to move your glass, so it doesn’t accidentally pour the beer straight into your lap?

That’s the ambitious goal of computer scientists at Cornell’s Personal Robotics Lab, who equipped a PR2 robot with a Microsoft Kinect camera and a database of 3-D videos to teach it to anticipate human actions. So if you reach for your mug when it’s getting ready to pour you a brewski, it realizes that you might be about to move the mug—then waits until you’ve put it back before beginning to pour.

The artificial intelligence involved is akin to the algorithms Google uses to autocomplete your words when you start typing them into a search window on your computer. In this case, the robot watches you begin to move and develops a few hypotheses about where you’re most likely to move so that it can respond appropriately.

Humans and other animals do this all the time, and they do it incredibly well, which is why robots aren’t going to be replacing human bartenders anytime soon. Cornell’s robot makes correct predictions 82 percent of the time when looking one second into the future, which sounds really good until you realize that means it will soak your trousers with suds 18 percent of the time. It’s also very slow. For the time being, it’s probably useful mainly for people so inordinately lazy that they’d rather stand around doing nothing for 30 seconds than open the fridge for themselves.

Still, this is an important step in a direction that could someday lead to household robots with at least a basic level of competence at certain tasks, such as caregiving for the elderly.