May 25, 2022

We saw a disproportionate number of early industrial pizza-focused food preparation robots. I have long argued that this happens for two main reasons. First, people love pizza. We eat it a lot. Americans alone eat three billion pizzas a year. Secondly, it is relatively easy to make. The dough is a fairly simple platform for adding ingredients.

I say fair here because there are more complications. There really isn’t such a simple thing when it comes to building a robot that can make a huge difference to a task. Here the flour is the problem. Turning a soft and pliable dough ball into a pizza crust is one of the things humans have learned to do efficiently, but it’s still tricky for robots.

A group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, CMU and UC San Diego decided to study what they call “complex test manipulation.” The system is divided into a two-step process in which the robot must first set a task and then complete it using a tool such as a rolling pin. The DiffSkill system includes training robots for complex simulation tasks.

Note from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

The “teacher” algorithm decides each step the robot takes to complete the task. It then trains a learner machine learning model that learns abstract ideas about when and how to perform each skill while performing a task, such as using a rolling pin. With this knowledge, the system rationalizes how to apply the skill to complete the entire task.

The researchers say these systems have outperformed systems trained in more traditional reinforcement learning models. “Our structure provides robots with a new way to acquire new skills. These skills can then be combined to solve more complex tasks that are beyond the capabilities of previous robotics systems,” said CSAIL student Yunzhou Li.

This is robotics, so all this pizza is actually a major problem for a system designed to do too many tasks. The company points to the emerging field of robotics for the care of the elderly as a potential future application.

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