According to Facebook AI Research, the next generation of robots should be much better at feeling — not emotions, of course, but using the sense of touch. And to advance the ball in this relatively new area of AI and robotics research, the company and its partners have built a new kind of electronic skin and fingertip that are inexpensive, durable, and provide a basic and reliable tactile sense to our mechanical friends.
The question of why exactly Facebook is looking into robot skin is obvious enough that AI head Yann LeCun took it on preemptively on a media call showing off the new projects.
Funnily enough, he recalled, it started with Zuckerberg noting that the company seemed to have no good reason to be looking into robotics. LeCun seems to have taken this as a challenge and started looking into it, but a clear answer emerged in time: if Facebook was to be in the business of providing intelligent agents — and what self-respecting tech corporation isn’t? — then those agents need to understand the world beyond the output of a camera or microphone.
The sense of touch isn’t much good at telling whether something is a picture of a cat or a dog, or who in a room is speaking, but if robots or AIs plan to interact with the real world, they need more than that.
“What we’ve become good at is understanding pixels and appearances,” said FAIR research scientist Roberto Calandra, “But understanding the world goes beyond that. We need to go towards a physical understanding of objects to ground this.”
While cameras and microphones are cheap and there are lots of tools for efficiently processing that data, the same can’t be said for touch. Sophisticated pressure sensors simply aren’t popular consumer products, and so any useful ones tend to stay in labs and industrial settings.