Feb 7, 2019

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.

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.

Go deeper

Axios-Ipsos poll: America’s big racial divide on police, virus

Data: Ipsos/Axios survey; Note: ±3.2% margin of error; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

A new Axios-Ipsos poll finds that America has a massive racial gulf on each of our twin calamities — trust in police, and fear of the coronavirus.

  • 77% of whites say they trust local police, compared with just 36% of African Americans — one of many measures of a throbbing racial divide in Week 11 of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, taken the week George Floyd was killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis.
Updated 12 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Updates: George Floyd protests nationwide

Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators outside of the White House on Monday. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images

Protests over the death of George Floyd and other police-related killings of black people continued for a seventh day across the U.S., with President Trump threatening on Monday to deploy the military if the unrest continues.

The latest: Four police officers were struck by gunfire while standing near a line in St Louis on Monday after a peaceful demonstration, Police Chief John Hayden said early Tuesday. They were all taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries. He said a small group of people had thrown rocks and fireworks at police officers.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 6,273,402 — Total deaths: 375,683 — Total recoveries — 2,697,873Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 1,811,277 — Total deaths: 105,147 — Total recoveries: 458,231 — Total tested: 17,340,682Map.
  3. Public health: Nearly 26,000 coronavirus deaths in nursing homes have been reported to federal health officials —Coronavirus looms over George Floyd protests across the country.
  4. Federal government: Trump lashes out at governors, calls for National Guard to "dominate" streets.
  5. World: Former FDA commissioner says "this is not the time" to cut ties with WHO.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: The virus didn't go away.