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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

Rep. Rice demands Cuomo resign after 3rd woman accuses him of misconduct

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a February news conference in New York City. Photo: Seth Wenig/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) on Monday evening called for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to resign, after a third woman accused him of inappropriate behavior.

Driving the news: Anna Ruch, a former member of the Obama administration and the 2020 Biden campaign, told the New York Times Monday that Cuomo asked to kiss her at a New York City wedding reception in September 2019.

Scoop: Inside the GOP's plan to retake the House

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

House Republicans will reclaim their majority in 2022 by offering candidates who are women, minorities or veterans, a memo obtained by Axios says.

Why it matters: The document, drafted by a super PAC blessed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, names top Democrats to target — Jared Golden of Maine, Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania and Ron Kind of Wisconsin — and the type of Republican candidates to beat them.

4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Trump talked out of early Ohio endorsement

Jane Timken at a 2017 Trump rally. Photo: Kyle Mazza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Donald Trump had to be talked out of making an early endorsement in Ohio's 2022 U.S. Senate race, a sign of his eagerness to reengage politically, people familiar with the conversations tell Axios.

What we're hearing: The former president discussed endorsing former state GOP chair Jane Timken last week during a meeting at Mar-a-Lago with RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, but top advisers — including Donald Trump Jr. — urged him to wait.