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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

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Top Pentagon officials contradict Biden on Afghanistan advice

Photo: Carolone Brehman/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Top military leaders confirmed in a Senate hearing Tuesday they recommended earlier this year that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and that they believed withdrawing those forces would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military.

Why it matters: Biden denied last month that his top military advisers wanted troops to remain in Afghanistan, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "No one said that to me that I can recall."

Poll: Latinas more likely to open their own businesses, despite pandemic setbacks

Janie Isidoro, owner of My Corazon, a Chicano business in downtown Hanford, Calif. Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Latinas in the U.S. are more likely to own, or plan to open, their own businesses than non-Hispanic women, despite the pandemic’s disproportionate burden, a recent poll found.

Why it matters: The survey, conducted by Telemundo, the Latino Victory Foundation and Hispanics Organized for Political Equality, suggests Latinas can be a driver of growth for the U.S. even though they have faced greater COVID-19-related setbacks.

Warren opposes Fed chair Powell's renomination, calls him a "dangerous man"

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a hearing before Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell's record on financial regulation during a hearing Tuesday, calling him a "dangerous man" and saying that she would not support his renomination for a second term.

Driving the news: While the Fed chair’s term expires in early 2022, President Biden is expected to make a decision this fall on whether to reappoint Powell or nominate another candidate.