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MIT teaches robots to ‘feel’ objects just by looking at them

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MIT teaches robots to 'feel' objects just by looking at themMIT/CSAIL via CNN
MIT researchers used a sophisticated touch sensor and a web camera to teach robots to predict what something feels like by looking at it.

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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are teaching robots to “see” what an object looks like just by touching it and predict what something will feel like by looking at it.

A team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have created a predictive artificial intelligence to help robots use multi-modal sensory inputs.

It’s something people do all the time.

If you look at a fuzzy sweater and a barbell, you’ll be able to tell that one is soft and the other is hard. Or if someone hands you a hammer, you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of what it looks like, even if you’re blindfolded.

Robots can be equipped with visual and touch sensors, but it’s tougher for them to combine that information.

“The two directions is only possible because we humans have this synchronized information all through our childhood,” said Yunzhu Li, the lead author of a paper on the research. “We also want our robots to have this capability.”

The researchers put a special tactile sensor on a robot arm and had it poke stuff.

A webcam recorded the arm touching almost 200 objects, such as tools, fabrics and household products, more than 12,000 times.

They broke the video clips down into individual frames, which gave them a data set of more than 3 million visual/tactile-paired images. That information was used to help the robot predict what it would feel when it saw a certain image, and vice versa.

“If you see a sharp edge or a flat surface, you can imagine how it would feel if you go and touch it,” Yunzhu Li said. “This what we also want, to have our robots have this capability.”

This technology could be used to help robots figure out the best way to hold an object just by looking at it.

It could also help them locate a specific item, even if they can’t see it.

“You handle some cases where the light is off or you’re reaching into some box where you have very limited vision available, or even to the extreme consider you are reaching into your pocket and trying to find out where your keys are and grasp them out,” he said.

The data set only includes data collected in a controlled environment, but the team hopes to improve this by collecting new data out in the world.

A paper based on the research is scheduled to be presented Thursday at The Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition in Long Beach, California.

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Claremont Courier – Mobile site

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One of Claremont’s more interesting demographic anomalies is that a near equal percentage of the city’s population—34,478 at the latest census—are under 18 years of age as are over 65.

Those numbers—18.5 percent minors and 16.5 percent seniors—don’t often interface; The kids are busy being kids, and the older folks are busy staying active and healthy, and generally socializing with their peers.

Claremont, with its robust senior services and award-winning public school system, has long looked to create mutually beneficial opportunities to bring these groups together. Among them is the popular senior lunch program at the Joslyn Center and Blaisdell Community Center.

And now a new program, “Teen Techies,” has tapped into the technological knowhow of the town’s youth to benefit those that are perhaps most challenged by operating the smartphones, tablets and laptops so crucial to getting along in the 21st century.

“There’s always going to be old folks who haven’t kept up with technology, and there’s always going to be kids who are on the cutting edge of this stuff,” said 30-year Claremont resident Mike Johnston, 70.

“You put together the people with a need with the people with the skills and time to help out, and I hate to use a cliché, but it’s a win-win.”

Mr. Johnston, a retired sales and marketing executive from the financial services sector, has been instrumental in making fellow seniors aware of the Teen Techies program. He’s been part of the Mac Club, which meets on the second Monday of every month at the Joslyn Center, for some time.

“When I heard about [Teen Techies] I said, ‘Oh my God. Why didn’t any of us come up with this?’ It’s just such a good idea,” he said. “We’re sort of in the position of the kindergartener or first-grader. We don’t have the quick minds. With these kids it’s what they grew up with. They don’t have to learn it; it’s in their DNA.”

Frida Lopez, a 15-year-old junior at Claremont High, has helped out at the two Teen Techies events that have taken place thus far. “It was really fun being able to help them out with their technical issues,” she said. “Some of the seniors didn’t know basic stuff, like how to update their phones or delete apps.”

She was pleasantly surprised by the seniors’ general sense of fun. “I noticed that some of them made a lot of jokes and they really had a good sense of humor,” Frida said. “They laughed a lot. They were so positive.”

Brandon Brown, 24, has been a youth activities coordinator for the city of Claremont for four years. Getting teen volunteers wasn’t a problem, he said. Claremont High School’s Youth Activity Center (the “YAC”) already has an enthusiastic group of teen volunteers, and they jumped at the chance to help out local seniors.

“They’re always willing,” Mr. Brown said, “especially when it’s something new that they haven’t done before.”

Mr. Brown was pleased to witness the connections made at the Teen Techies workshops. “Some of the seniors came back and asked for those same volunteers at the second one,” he said. “It’s like a friendship after that, and it’s nice to see.”

“We are just so incredibly grateful that they are helping us with this stuff,” Mr. Johnson said. “I know how much brain power is in this city,” Mr. Johnson said. “We’re getting folks who can actually help us on a one-to-one basis. They’re not going to solve the entire senior community’s problems with technology, but this is one more tool in the toolbox, and I’m excited to see this.”

The intergenerational interface is also evident at the city’s senior lunch program. The many volunteers that serve lunch at noon and 11:30 a.m. every weekday at Blaisdell and Joslyn, respectively, are sometimes accompanied by their children, grandchildren or nieces and nephews. It’s a great way to teach kids service, and the seniors that benefit are always glad to see the youngsters.

Margaret “Margo” Lopez (no relation to Frida), 74, has been volunteering with the city’s senior lunch program at Blaisdell since she moved to Claremont three years ago. She had a special guest helper on the day the COURIER talked to her: one of her 12 grandchildren, 10-year-old Leah, a sixth-grader.

“I’ve been eating, and the food’s really good, and I had Starbuck’s today,” Leah said. When asked what the best part of volunteering with her grandmother had been, she was quick to answer: “Ice cream. And I always like coming here with grandma because she’s so nice.”

“I love it here,” Ms. Lopez said. “The people here are just different kinds of people, with their jobs and stuff, and you know, you want to help them.”

Ms. Lopez’ enthusiasm for helping out her fellow seniors is something she plans on continuing “as long as I can move,” she said. “It does something to me.”

Claremont serves full-course nutritious meals Monday through Friday to adults ages 60 and over for a suggested donation of $2 per person at the Joslyn Center and Blaisdell Community Center. To learn more about Claremont’s senior lunch program, visit the Joslyn Center at 660 N. Mountain Ave., call (909) 399-5488, or click on ci.claremont.ca.us and search “senior nutrition program.”

The next Teen Techies event will take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at Claremont High School’s Youth Activity Center, 1717 N. Indian Hill Blvd., on September 17. After that it will be held every third Tuesday through December 12.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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