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Photo: Adam Berry/Getty

Robots are getting pretty good at the repetitive, precise tasks that make up a good deal of factory and warehouse work. But place one in a home it's never seen before, or on a busy sidewalk, and it's likely to struggle to get around or do anything useful.

Driving the news: These chaotic scenarios — called "edge cases," because no two are the same — are the singular focus of a new robotics startup that was announced today. The high-powered venture wants to teach robots to think more like people in order to navigate the world.

The big picture: A wild debate has been raging in AI, and it's all about rules. One side says that machines should learn nearly everything from scratch; the other says that computers — like humans — must lean on some basic concepts about the world.

The team behind the new startup, Robust.AI, is firmly in the second camp.

  • One co-founder is Gary Marcus, an NYU psychologist and AI expert who carries the banner for scientists who don't believe AI can learn how to navigate through the world without some level of prior knowledge about how it works.
  • Another is Rodney Brooks, a legendary MIT roboticist who previously built Rethink Robotics, which sold factory robots meant to work alongside humans. Rethink folded last year.

No robot today can deliver a package all the way to any doorstep, or take care of an elderly person in their home. "For those kinds of situations, you need robots that can actually think for themselves — robots that can deal with an ever-changing world," Marcus says.

  • He argues that deep learning — a reigning AI technique that teaches machines patterns without any hard rules — can't do the job on its own.
  • "In order for these machines to reason and operate with more humanlike priors and a deeper understanding of the world, just brute-forcing deep learning is not going to get you there," says Peter Barrett, co-founder of VC firm Playground Global, which led the seed-round investment in Robust.AI.

Bringing back ideas from the era of symbolic AI — a focus on ground rules that died out in the 1980s — is a potential way forward, Barrett says. "I see it as absolutely necessary if we really want to close the gap between the tour de force mechanical capabilities of today's robots and their rather limited intellectual capacities."

Go deeper

Policy group lays groundwork for "net negative" emissions tech

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new policy roadmap provides Congress and the White House with ways to support the growth of methods to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using everything from existing forests to direct air capture machines.

Driving the news: Recent climate studies, such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 1.5-degree report, have pointed to the clear need for society to pursue strategies for driving carbon emissions into negative territory by the latter half of the century.

New CDC mask guidance tests risk tolerance

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The CDC announced Thursday that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors.

Why it matters: The U.S. is entering a new stage in the pandemic where the public — vaccinated or not — will need to assess its own risk tolerance in shared spaces.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
2 hours ago - Economy & Business

The rehabilitation of Wells Fargo

Expand chart
Data: Harris Poll; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Wells Fargo is no longer viewed as the least ethical big company in America. That's the big lesson from the most recent Axios Harris reputation poll.

Why it matters: After hitting extreme Axios Harris lows in 2017, Wells Fargo embarked upon a massive public rehabilitation campaign in 2018. It seems to have worked.