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Look What This Robot Learned!

Scientists taught a robot how to peel a banana. They’re excited to find out what else robots can learn to do.

ISI (Kuniyoshi) Laboratory, The University of Tokyo

Robots are amazing. They can deliver stuff, move heavy equipment, and even do some repairs. All of this saves humans a lot of time and energy. Now, thanks to scientists in Japan, at least one robot can peel a banana!

Why teach a robot to peel a banana? As great as robots are at certain tasks, they’re not known for being good at delicate tasks. Humans have fine motor skills, which enable us to use small muscles in our wrists, hands, and fingers to do things like hold a pen or peel a banana. Robots don’t have human hands, of course. But could they learn these skills? Scientists decided to find out. They wanted to see if they could teach a robot to do a delicate task—like peeling a banana without squishing it and making a big mess.

Scientists used a robot that has two arms. They trained the robot by showing it how to peel a banana hundreds of times. Each time, the robot collected more data (information) about what to do. This allowed it to learn the action and copy it. It took the robot 13 hours of training before it could peel a banana. Even then, it did the task successfully only a little more than half the time. It took the robot about 3 minutes to peel one banana. 

While the robot couldn’t peel a banana as well as a human can, scientists did show that robots can learn at least one delicate task. This suggests that robots may be able to learn other delicate tasks, too. If they can, companies that use robots will be able to put them to work in many more ways.

What an ap-PEEL-ing idea!
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Fun Fact

Audio Productions Inc./Internet Moving Images Archive (at archive.org)

In this video from 1939, Elektro the robot shows off what he can do.

Robots come in many shapes and sizes. Robots that look like humans are called humanoid. The first humanoid robot, called Elektro, was introduced to the public in 1939. Elektro could move its head and arms, say about 700 words, and even blow up a balloon.

Well-Rounded Robots

A robot wears a chef’s hat and performs various kitchen tasks
© gmast3r—iStock/Getty Images Plus; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Robots may still struggle to peel bananas, but there’s a lot they can do very well. 

Cook Dinner. A company called Moley Robotics says it has invented a robot that can prepare meals. The robot downloads a recipe and then prepares it. How? Two robot arms hang from the ceiling above the stove, mix the ingredients in pots and pans, and then stir and monitor everything until the food is cooked.

Make Sneakers. Nike and Adidas are using robots to put together sneakers in their factories. The robots’ job is to arrange the pieces of the shoe so that they can be sewn together. This job normally takes a human 10 to 20 minutes to complete. But a robot can finish the job in 50 to 75 seconds.

Make Eyeglasses. A company in Japan uses robots to make eyeglasses. A robot gets the person’s prescription—the information needed to figure out how strong or weak the glasses should be—and makes the lenses. Then the robot puts the lenses in eyeglass frames.

Fly…and Do Amazing Things. Have you ever seen a drone before? A drone is a flying robot! Drones have been used to take photos, monitor traffic and weather, and even rescue people.

We’ve Come a Long Way

An illustration of a mechanical puppet theater as created by a Greek scientist in the 1st century.
INTERFOTO/Alamy, © Ke77kz/Dreamstime.com
This puppet theater was created by a Greek scientist in the 1st century. It was designed to work on its own, like a robot.

People were trying to make robots thousands of years ago!

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Word of the Day

automaton

Part of speech:

noun

Definition:

: a machine that can move by itself

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