Meet Vestri, the robot that can think ahead


It’s a pretty standard ability for humans (and other animals) to plan ahead. And not just what we’re going to eat for dinner, but thinking about the direct consequences of our actions, such as where a ball will go if we kick it. But apparently we suck at realising how nuclear weapons would be a bad thing.

Robots on the other hand don’t really do do this, especially the ones who don’t have the whole AI software built into them. They’re usually programmed for basic tasks, as well as responding to direct stimuli.

However, there are exceptions. A team of researchers at the University of California Berkeley have developed a new machine learning technology that allows robots to think or plan ahead in order to “figure out how to manipulate objects they have never encountered before.”

The team calls this “visual foresight”, which is totally not precognition. Please, please don’t make robots predict the future.

The Berkeley researchers applied this definitely-not-precognition technology to a robot called Vestri, which gave it the capacity to predict what its cameras will see seconds into the future. Using its visual foresight, Vestri was able to move small objects around on a table without touching or knocking any obstacles over.

The robot was able to do all of this without human input, supervision, or any prior knowledge of physics.

“In the same way that we can imagine how our actions will move the objects in our environment, this method can enable a robot to visualize how different behaviors will affect the world around it,” explained Sergey Levine, assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. “This can enable intelligent planning of highly flexible skills in complex real-world situations.”

Or, you know, being the best rock-paper-scissors players in the world.

Levine notes the capabilities of Vestri are somewhat limited, though additional work is being done to improve visual foresight. This technology could be used in a variety of different contexts, such as giving self-driving cars the ability to handle new situations and unfamiliar objects, or robotic surgeons to deal with potentially unforeseeable circumstances during an operation.

The technology has a long way to go before it can do those things, however. And by that time, there might be projects to actually allow robots to calculate the future.

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Zaid Shahid

Zaid is BroFeed's big bro. He studies biotechnology at York University, and in his spare time writes about South Asian casteism, powerlifting, and all kinds of gadgets. He's also a major food nerd.

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