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Berkeley's two-armed robot, seen at 5x speed. Video: Adriel Olmos / UC Berkeley

Pick up a glass of water, then lift a fork: Without thinking, you chose the best way to grasp each object. Researchers at UC Berkeley have developed a robot that makes the same calculation, choosing on the fly whether to grab an object with pincers or lift it with a suction cup.

Why it matters: Reliable robot grabbers are the just-out-of-reach holy grail for e-commerce outfits like Amazon and Walmart, who still rely mainly on human hands for the job. Smart picker-uppers would clear a serious bottleneck in shipping and could change the nature of warehouses entirely.

How it works: Berkeley's two-armed robot, seen in the video clip above, first considers the contents of a bin and calculates each arm's probability of picking up an object.

  • Its suction cup is good at grabbing smooth, flat objects like boxes, but bad at porous surfaces like on a stuffed animal. The pincers, on the other hand, are best with small, odd-shaped items.
  • The system learned its pick-up prowess not from actual practice, but from millions of simulated grasps on more than 1,600 3D objects. In every simulation, small details were randomized, which taught the robot to deal with real-world uncertainty.
  • The bot can pick up objects 95% of the time, at about 300 successful pickups per hour, its creators write in a paper published today in Science Robotics.

Warehouse robots that can move around merchandise are highly sought after. Amazon is reportedly working on its own "picker" robots, as are several robotics companies.

  • Whoever succeeds could kick off a total reimagining of warehouse distribution, says Ken Goldberg, a Berkeley robotics professor and co-author of the paper.
  • "You could have very dense warehouses where you could have these bins and robots in really tight quarters," says Goldberg. Think small, vertical warehouses throughout Manhattan, rather than a few huge warehouses mostly outside the city.

We've reported on a JD.com warehouse in China that only employs four humans — but it only handles boxes, not loose items. The difficulty of grabbing never-before-seen items — trivial for a human — means totally automated warehouses are still a ways off.

  • One limitation of the Berkeley bot is that it can't change its plans once it begins moving to pick up an object, and therefore can't react to its environment — like items resettling in a jostled bin — says Jonas Schneider, head robotics engineer at OpenAI, who was not involved in this research.
  • Jeff Mahler, a Berkeley researcher and the paper's lead author, says the system only "sees" the bin once every 12 seconds, causing more problems if things shift around.

What's next: Mahler says robots will eventually need to place objects in precise orientations — on a conveyor belt used in a factory, say — and to tightly pack a shipping box. Perhaps most valuable would be a bot that can rummage through a box to find a specific item.

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”

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