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“I would like to make a robot that could go into your kitchen for the first time, having been in other kitchens before but not yours, and put the groceries away,” Kaelbling says.

And in a paper recently accepted for publication in the International Journal of Robotics Research, she and CSAIL colleague Tomas Lozano-Perez describe a system designed to do just that, by constantly calculating the robot’s level of uncertainty about a given task, such as the whereabouts of an object, or its own location within the room.

Uncertainty principles

The system is based on a module called the state estimation component, which calculates the probability of any given object being what or where the robot thinks it is. In this way, if the robot is not sufficiently certain that an object is the one it is looking for, because the probability of it being that object is too low, it knows it needs to gather more information before taking any action, Kaelbling says.


Baby steps

So instead the system makes a plan for the first stage of its task and begins executing this before it has come up with a strategy for the rest of the exercise. That means that instead of one big complicated strategy, which consumes a considerable amount of computing power and time, the robot can make many smaller plans as it goes along.

The drawback to this process is that it can lead the robot into making silly mistakes, such as picking up a plate and moving it over to the table without realizing that it first needs to clear some room to put it down, Kaelbling says.

But such small mistakes may be a price worth paying for more capable robots, she says: “As we try to get robots to do bigger and more complicated things in more variable environments, we will have to settle for some amount of suboptimality.”
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