Move over Emeril: Robot learns how to prep food from YouTube

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These days, you can learn just about anything from YouTube videos — from how to tie a knot to the best way to open a wine bottle with a shoe. And it isn’t just humans who are benefitting. University of Maryland researchers have programmed a robot to learn basic cooking skills from YouTube videos, a feat that could eventually be expanded into other skills like equipment repair.

The researchers worked with Baxter, a robot built by Rethink Robotics. Baxter is popular for its safety around humans and ease of use; it can be programmed quickly just by moving its arms, and it is smart enough to adapt to a changing work area.

But Baxter’s default software isn’t smart enough to understand a video, let alone recognize the correct measuring cup or ingredient. With the Maryland team’s help, Baxter was able to watch YouTube videos and learn what types of objects to recognize, catalog directions by picking out action verbs and observe which type of grasp would be most effective for holding each tool. Baxter then repeated the steps in the video without any input from its human operators.

University of Maryland computer scientist Yiannis Aloimonos (center) observes as Baxter measures ingredients.

University of Maryland computer scientist Yiannis Aloimonos (center) observes as Baxter measures ingredients.

“This system allows robots to continuously build on previous learning—such as types of objects and grasps associated with them—which could have a huge impact on teaching and training,” DARPA program manager Reza Ghanadan said in a release. “Instead of the long and expensive process of programming code to teach robots to do tasks, this research opens the potential for robots to learn much faster, at much lower cost and, to the extent they are authorized to do so, share that knowledge with other robots.”

DARPA, which funded the project, has other applications in mind like military repairs and logistics. Now that Baxter is cooking, there is no word on when the robot will learn to do the dishes.

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