The Next Generation of AI-Driven Robot Arms

A new robot arm, created by a group of researchers from UC Berkeley, is meant to change our view that robots in factories today are powerful and precise, but dumb, by providing a cheap and powerful platform for AI experimentation. The group compares their creation to the Apple II, the personal computer that drew in hobbyists and hackers in the 70s and 80s, bringing a technological revolution.

The team at UC Berkeley responsible for developing Blue

The team at UC Berkeley responsible for developing Blue

Robots and AI have evolved in tandem as areas of research for decades. However, recently, AI has advanced rapidly when applied to abstract issues such as labelling images or playing video games. While industrial robots can perform very precise actions, they need painstaking programming and are unable to adapt to even the smallest of changes. Cheaper and safer robots have come to light, but the majority are not designed specifically to be controlled using AI software.

Robots are increasingly able to learn new tasks, whether through trial and error or via expert demonstration. Without a low-cost platform—an Apple II-type device—experimentation, trial and error, and productive research will continue to move slowly. There is potential for research to be greatly accelerated by making more robots more accessible.
— Stephen McKinley, a postdoc at UC Berkeley involved with developing the robot.

This new arm, named Blue, will run you around $5,000, and it can be controlled via a VR headset—a technique that is proving handy for training robot-controlling AI algorithms.

Blue is able to carry relatively heavy loads but is also extremely “backdrivable,” which means it will comply when pushed or pulled. This means it is safe for people to work alongside, and allows it to be physically shown how to do something. The system provides low-level software for controlling the robot and for the VR system, and it is designed to be compatible with any computer running AI software.

Nvidia’s CEO, Jensen Huang, describes Blue as “very exciting”. He notes that while an industrial robot might cost around $50,000 to buy, it can cost many times that to reprogram one for a new series of different tasks. “We have it the wrong way around,” he said. He anticipates big advances in robotics in the coming years thanks to advancements in machine learning and VR simulation: “Robots and AI are now the same thing.”