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MIT's Jenga robot could unlock enormous commercial potential

MIT researchers are using a wooden Jenga tower in a new effort to accomplish one of the hardest challenges in robotics — to build a bot that can grab, pack and assemble things with the dexterity of a human hand.

Robot jenga
Video: MIT/YouTube

The MIT robot arm brings bots closer to assembling or packing finicky objects in a factory — jobs that, for now, can only be done by people. The robot can gingerly poke out block after block from the tower, relying on feedback from a camera and — in a novel twist — its own sense of touch.

  • In Jenga, players take turns removing individual blocks from a tower, without touching other blocks while doing so. The player who knocks down the tower loses.
  • To most, it's a simple game, but to a roboticist, it's an enormous challenge. "It requires you to not only see the world but also feel the world," Nima Fazeli, the MIT graduate student who led the robot's development, tells Axios.
  • It's nearly impossible to know which blocks are removable and which aren't just by looking at a Jenga tower.

Jenga is "a little like chess or Go but for manipulation," says Ken Goldberg, a Berkeley roboticist who was not involved with the MIT research. "It really requires a pretty sophisticated level of skill."

Details: When the MIT robot played its first game, it attacked blocks at random. But it learned as it played, and 300 fallen towers later, it developed a system to predict how blocks in different parts of the tower would behave.

  • Essentially, the robot constantly asks itself: "How close is this block to the kinds of blocks that I've seen before?" Fazeli says.
  • As the robot prods a block, a cuff on its "wrist" detects the resistance so it can tell if it's free or stuck.

The bot is pretty good at the game, says Fazeli — but not world class. "If you have a little skill, you can definitely beat it."

What's next: A yet-unsolved next step with enormous commercial potential, says Goldberg, is putting things back into narrow gaps.