MIT Wants to Teach Robots to Do Your Chores

iStock
iStock

Teaching a robot basic human tasks is more of a challenge than it seems. To teach a robot to pour you a glass of orange juice, for instance, the 'bot has to not just recognize the command to take the juice out of the fridge and pour it into a glass, but it has to understand the many tiny aspects of the task that the human brain infers—like, say, the steps where you have to walk into the kitchen, open the cupboard, and grab an empty glass.

VirtualHome, a 3D virtual environment created by MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with researchers at the University of Toronto, is designed to teach robots exactly how to accomplish household tasks like pouring juice. The simulator acts as a training ground for artificial intelligence, turning a large set of household tasks into robot-friendly, sequence-by-sequence programs.

First, researchers created a knowledge base that the AI would use to perform tasks [PDF]. The researchers asked participants on Amazon's Mechanical Turk to come up with descriptions of household activities, like making coffee or turning on the television, and describe the steps. Their descriptions naturally didn't include some of the steps that a robot would need, since they were composed as if speaking to another human—the "watch TV" command didn't include some obvious steps a robot might need, like "walk over to the TV" or "sit on the sofa and watch." They then had the same participants generate programs for these tasks using a simple system designed to teach young kids how to code. All told, they created more than 2800 programs for household tasks.

An avatar sets the table in a simulated dining room.
MIT CSAIL

Then, the researchers tested these programs in a Sims-inspired virtual home to see if the crowd-sourced instructions could work to train robots. They turned the programs into videos in which a virtual agent would execute the household task based on the code.

The researchers were focused on creating a virtual environment that could serve as a dataset for future AI training, rather than training any actual robots right now. But their model is designed so that one day, artificial intelligence could be trained by someone who isn't a robotics expert, converting natural language commands into robot-friendly code.

In the future, they hope to be able to turn videos from real life into similar programs, so that a robot could learn to do simple tasks by watching a YouTube video. An artificial intelligence system like Amazon's Alexa wouldn't need to be programmed by its manufacturer to do every single task—it could learn on the fly, without waiting for a developer to create a new skill.

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

The Fourth of July is the epitome of summer—and after several months spent indoors, you need some outdoor fun more than anything. Check out these 15 summer must-haves while they’re on sale and save an extra 15 percent when you spend $50 or more with the code JULYFOURTH15.

1. CARSULE Pop-Up Cabin for Your Car; $300 (20 percent off)

Carsule tent from Mogics.
Mogics

This tent connects to your hatchback car like a tailgate mobile living room. The installation takes just a few minutes and the entire thing stands 6.5 feet tall so you can enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your car.

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2. Mosquito Killer Lamp; $30 (25 percent off)

Mosquito-killing lamp.
Kinkoo

If you just so happen to be one of those unlucky souls who attracts a suspicious amount of mosquitos the second you step outside, you need this repellent lamp to help keep your arms and legs bite-free. It uses a non-toxic combination of LED lights, air turbulence, and other methods to keep the pests at bay.

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3. Super Shield Mosquito Repellent Electronic Watch Band; $17 (57 percent off)

Mosquito repeller watch.
Safe Touch

While a lamp is a great non-toxic solution for keeping bugs at bay, active individuals need a bug repellent that can keep up with their lifestyle. This wrist wearable keeps you safe from mosquitoes anywhere by using ultrasonic sounds to drive them away.

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4. ZeroDark 3-Piece Tactical Set: Flashlight, Lantern, and Headlamp; $20 (66 percent off)

Aduro flashlight set.
Audro

If you want your summer to be lit, this set will do the trick. All puns aside, this trio of LED brightness is perfect for camping fun and backyard parties, or it can be stored in the car for emergencies.

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5. Outdoor Collapsible Cooler and Camp Table Set; $64 (27 percent off)

First Colonial cooler.
First Colonial

Cookouts are easy with this cooler and table set that chills your drink until you're ready to pop it into one of the four convenient cupholders. Bring this set camping or out by the pool for convenience anywhere.

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6. Trident: Underwater Scooter; $550 (21 percent off)

Trident underwater scooter.
Geneinno

If you’ve ever dreamed of better mobility while exploring the water, you’re not alone. The Trident underwater scooter, which raised over $82,000 on Indiegogo, can propel you through the water at up to nearly 6 feet per second, which isn't that far off from how fast Michael Phelps swam in his prime. The battery on it will last 45 minutes, allowing you to traverse with ease.

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7. Go Portable Solar Oven; $119 (14 percent off)

GoSun solar grill.
GoSun

Bake, roast, steam, or broil anywhere you bring this portable oven. Measuring in at just over a foot long and weighing only two pounds, the oven will work in most daytime weather conditions and can hold around 13 ounces of food.

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8. 3-in-1 Waterproof Bug Zapper Lantern; $25 (50 percent off)

3P Experts bug zapper.
3P Experts

Mosquitoes tend to be a big problem at night, partly because it's hard to swat in the dark. This lantern will light the area and zap mosquitos from nipping at you in the process.

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9. Urban E-Skateboard: Basic Version (Orange); $120 (73 percent off)

Urban Rover E-Skateboard
Urban Rover

This e-skateboard is perfect for getting around during the summer. You'll catch a breeze while you’re cruising on the battery-powered platform and won’t break a sweat when you pop the compact board in your bag.

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10. H2 Headlamp: Waterproof, Rechargeable LED Wide 180° Angle Headlight; $37 (26 percent off)

Headlamp from One80Light
One80Light

Camping, car troubles, and sports all pose a problem at night. This LED headlight will light up your surroundings across a 180-degree radius for prime visibility, meaning your outdoor activities won't have to stop when the sun sets.

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11. Whirlwind Cool Bladeless Mini Fan; $22 (63 percent off)

Bladeless fan
Whirlwind

This portable fan comes in a powerful handheld size so you can keep cool while on the move. Unlike other portable fans, this one has a sleek, bladeless design and features three different speeds.

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12. Bladeless Personal Fan; $22 (63 percent off)

Bladeless fan
3P Tech

This bladeless fan won't just keep you cool while you work on your laptop—it also has a built-in rechargable battery that you can use to charge your phone.

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13. MOGICS Coconut: Portable Waterproof Light; $37 (24 percent off)

Mogics portable lamp.
Mogics

This portable light is designed to adapt to your lighting preference. It self-inflates in a few seconds and can bounce, get wet, and set the mood.

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14. Lunatec 1L Hydration Spray Water Bottle; $25 (21 percent off)

Lunatec spray water bottle.
Lunatec

A water bottle can do more than hydrate you. This one has a spray nozzle that can create shower, stream, and mist patterns for doing dishes while camping, sharing a sip without sharing germs, and washing off those muddy shoes after a long hike.

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15. Sport Force Hydration Backpack; $25 (68 percent off)

Hydration backpack.
It's All Goods

Hiking enthusiasts know how important it is to stay hydrated, but carrying around awkward jugs of water is a hassle. This unique hydration backpack can be filled with two liters of water and features a convenient drinking nozzle that extends to the user's mouth. Now, you can replenish those fluids without breaking stride.

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

No Squawking, Please: A Backyard Bird Library Is the Star of This Livestream

Bird Library, YouTube
Bird Library, YouTube

Many people discovered backyard birding when they were quarantined in their homes at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if you have a vibrant wildlife population in your area, the Bird Library webcam is worth checking out. As Atlas Obscura reports, the bird feeder at the focus of the livestream resembles a tiny library where feathered guests can misbehave.

Librarian Rebecca Flowers and woodworker Kevin Cwalina were inspired to build the Bird Library in 2015. Located in a backyard in Charlottesville, Virginia, it features a miniature reading chair, bookshelves, and a reception desk. The decorations are even updated to match the seasons; the feeder currently sports a banner that says "Summer Reading." The main differences setting it apart from a real library are the bird seed scattered on the floor and the avian visitors.

The Bird Library attracts a diverse collection of patrons. Sparrows, cardinals, and mourning doves have been recorded perching on the librarian's desk and checking out the reading materials. The occasional squirrel has also been known to stop by.

Live video of the feeder streams on the Bird Library's YouTube page and website 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can play the video below to check in on the current guests. If the backyard Bird Library has inspired you to find birds closer to home, here's some gear for beginner naturalists.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]