A German Robot Learned to Flip Pancakes from WikiHow

The machines are coming for you, IHOP.

by Beckett Mufson
25 August 2015, 5:35pm

Screencap via

Pancake-flipping robots are getting a boost from the go-to repository of human knowledge of how to do stuff: YouTube instructionals and WikiHow. As part of a four-year project called RoboHow, German researchers at Willow Garage are teaching a robot named PR2 how to read cooking instructions on the web by building an online database that compiles the context any human would realize is implied in each instruction.

“If you have a robot in a factory, you want to say ‘Take the screw and put it into the nut and fasten the nut,’” Michael Beetz, head of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Bremen in northern Germany, where the RoboHow project is based, tells the MIT Technology Review. “You want the robot to generate the parameters automatically out of the semantic description of objects.” When a robot reads, "Push the spatula under the pancake," for example, it's obvious that first it should pick up the spatula, and that it should be holding the handle and pushing the pancake with the blade. By attaching nuggets of common sense like this to hundreds of commands stored in the Open Ease database, PR2 is learning to translate human language into commands its central processing unit can understand.

The context researchers add to help robots understand simple instructions.

According to Willow Garage's website, the ultimate goal of PR2 is to make "personal robots" that "enable people to make themselves more productive at home and at work." Right now, PR2 still requires lots of intensive, physical instruction to know where the spatula goes, and how hard to flip the pancake, but they're making progress toward a Star Trek-like world where a simple utterance, "Computer, make me some pancakes," will qualify as cooking breakfast.

PR2 can also pour popcorn into a bowl like a beast. Copyright Michael Memminger

Keep up to date on PR2's growth on the Willow Garage website.


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machine learning
Willow Garage