Robotics has traditionally focused on industrial applications in which robots require strength and precision to carry out repetitive tasks. These robots flourish in highly structured, predictable environments. They are very rigid and meant to go from point A to point B and back to point A perfectly. If they are commanded to go a centimeter past a table or a wall, they will hit the wall and lock up, break themselves, or break the wall.
As a result, robots still struggle with some basic human tasks required for in-home use. A new low-cost, human-friendly robot named Blue was designed to use recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and deep reinforcement learning to master intricate human tasks, all while remaining affordable and safe enough that every artificial intelligence researcher — and eventually every home — could have one.
Existing robots are expensive and always safe around humans or themselves — if they learn through trial and error, they can easily break themselves. Blue’s durable, plastic parts and high-performance motors total less than $5,000 to manufacture and assemble. Its arms are sensitive to outside forces — like a hand pushing it away — and have rounded edges and minimal pinch points. Blue’s arms can be very stiff like a human flexing, or very flexible like a human relaxing — or anything in between.
To achieve these capabilities at low cost, researchers considered what features Blue needed to complete human-centered tasks, and what it could do without; for example, they gave Blue a wide range of motion — it has joints that can move in the same directions as a human shoulder, elbow, and wrist — to enable humans to more easily teach it how to complete tricky maneuvers using virtual reality.
Blue is able to continually hold up 2 kilograms of weight with arms fully extended. But unlike traditional robot designs that are characterized by one consistent force/current limit, Blue is designed to be thermally limited. Similar to a human being, it can exert a force well beyond 2 kilograms in a quick burst until its thermal limits are reached and it needs time to rest or cool down.