As robots get smarter, they’ll be pouring our coffee (and beer)

Humanoid robots. Useful in theory, not so much in practice. They’re kind of creepy, too. But if you’re desperate to have a silicon-powered helper pour your beer, have no fear — that day might be closer than you think.

Scientists are hard at work creating robots that are able to sense and predict human actions, which should make them better performing tasks and look more natural while doing so. Researchers at Cornell University have trained a robot to recognize objects in its line of sight, as well as certain human actions, and then assign probabilities to the next set of possible actions. The video below (ignore the campiness of it) shows the robot in action trying to refill a cup of coffee — it must recognize the book and coffee cup on a person’s desk, predict which one he’s going to pick up, predict him taking a drink, then predict him setting the cup down for long enough for a pour to occur.

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It’s kind of like IBM’s(s ibm) Watson system, only it’s predicting human actions instead of the correct answers to questions. In fact, both rely on databases full of relevant information — human movements and objects in the case of the robot — in order to make predictions. And instead of accepting natural-language queries like Watson does, the Cornell robot uses a Microsoft Kinect camera to visually detect what’s going on. (Interesting side note: Microsoft researchers used a Kinect and machine learning to train an elevator in the company’s research building to detect the difference between someone who intends to get on and someone who’s stopping to chat in front of it.)

Teaching robots to predict human gestures isn’t just about saving us a trip to the coffee pot, refrigerator or elevator control panel, though. As Stacey Higginbotham explained last week when covering a similar experiment by Disney Research, the more human-like the robot, the more comfortable people will be interacting with it. Important if you’re in the theme-park business, yes, but also if you’re trying to automate some of the caregiving functions that aging baby boomers will require in the next couple decades.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Ociacia.