Blue the robot could be the AI-powered workhorse of the future

Global robot sales have doubled over the past five years, but the bots deployed in factories and warehouses today are pretty much the same as the ones we had decades ago. They’re powerful and precise but expensive to buy and dangerous for humans to work alongside.

Blue, a new robot from UC Berkeley, aims to break that mold with the help of AI.

Blue looks a little bit like a child’s drawing of a robot: it’s made from bulky, 3D-printed parts, and it has a pair of humanoid robot arms with pincers for hands. It can be controlled using VR handsets, which let operators wave their arms about and then Blue will wave its arms in tandem. It can also be trained to manipulate objects using artificial intelligence, a control method that’s still surprisingly rare in robots.

Pieter Abbeel, the roboticist leading the project, wants to change this, and he says Blue has been built from the ground up to take advantage of recent improvements in AI. “The fact that AI is becoming more capable gave us an opportunity to rethink how to design a robot,” Abbeel tells The Verge.

Abbeel explains that most robots in use today are built to be strong and accurate. Their movements are predefined, and they simply repeat the same action over and over again, whether that’s lifting pallets of goods, welding cars, or fastening screws into a smartphone.

The robots of the future, by comparison, will be reactive and dynamic. They’ll be able to work safely alongside humans without crushing them, and instead of having their actions planned in advance, they’ll navigate the world in real time using cameras and sensors.

Image: UC Berkeley
Blue is capable of complex tasks like folding a towel.

“If you look at traditional robots, they’re designed around the principle of very high precision and repeated motions,” says Abbeel. “But you don’t necessarily need sub-millimeter repeatability.” (That’s the ability to perform the same task over and over with differences in movement of less than a millimeter.) “Humans don’t have sub-millimeter repeatability. Instead, we use our eyes and sense of touch to get things done through feedback.”

Abbeel and his team, research fellow Stephen McKinley and grad student David Gealy, hope Blue will operate in the same way. It has a central vision module with a depth-sensing camera, and its arms are controlled by motors with rubber bands that give it flexibility. If you push against an industrial robot arm, it’s like pushing against a brick wall. But Blue is more like a human in a crowded subway car: jostle it, and it’ll move aside.

This makes Blue safer to work around but also suitable for research using reinforcement learning, a type of AI training method that’s becoming popular in robotics. Reinforcement learning works by asking an agent to complete a task and rewarding it when it does. It’s basically trial and error, with the agent starting out with no knowledge of how to complete its goal and then slowly teaching itself over time.

Photo: UC Berkely
From left to right: Pieter Abbeel, David Gealy, and Stephen McKinley.

Using traditional robots with reinforcement learning can be expensive. Their lack of flexibility makes them brittle and prone to damage. Plus, reinforcement learning takes time to produce results, and since the robots are expensive, the costs quickly add up.

This is another area where Blue might make a difference. PR2, a popular research robot built by Willow Garage that also has a pair of arms and pincers, set researchers back around $400,000. The bill of materials for Blue, by comparison, is just $3,000. Abbeel says the team hasn’t decided on a final price, but they’re hoping to target the $5,000 range.

“That becomes possible when you’re willing to forego sub-millimeter precision because you realize you don’t need it with AI-based control,” says Abbeel.

Plenty of other research labs and startups are also targeting this new paradigm, hoping to teach robots how to work using artificial intelligence. Abbeel is the president of one of them, a startup named Embodied Intelligence. Kindred AI, a firm that builds robots that pick items in warehouses, is another. The Elon Musk-founded research lab OpenAI has done similar work using robot hands, and Google is also exploring AI-training for robots.

Image: UC Berkeley
Blue the robot is “backdrivable,” meaning you can push it around even when it’s turned off.

Still, some experts are skeptical about Blue’s appeal. They note that it’s not that different from Baxter, another bot with arms and pincers that was meant to work alongside humans. The company that made Baxter, Rethink Robotics, shut down last year.

Ankur Handa, a robotics researcher at Nvidia, said Blue’s pincers limit the range of tasks it can perform, and its lack of precision would be a problem, even with AI controls. “Overall, I don’t think they are offering anything particularly new,” Handa tells The Verge. He added that the Blue robot was still a step forward to making cheaper robots

But Abbeel is bullish about Blue’s future. The robot is being built in small batches right now, but Abbeel hopes to scale up, eventually moving to outsourced manufacturing to produce larger numbers. The first target customers will be research labs and universities where robots are currently shared among teams, much like computers were in the 1960s. Offering a cheaper robot will make them more widely available, boosting the output of robot research.

More importantly, Abbeel hopes that Blue will provide a blueprint for what the home robot of the future could look like: something that is low cost, flexible, and plays well with humans. “The home is absolutely what we have in mind with this kind of design,” he says. “There’s still a lot of challenges ahead, and it’s not like we think this specific robot is going in a home. [But] this is a design paradigm that takes us in a new direction.”