Fellowship helps Cornell researcher improve personal robots

Ashutosh Saxena, assistant professor of computer science at Cornell University, has been named one of seven Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows for 2012. He hopes to use the fellowship to develop robots that can perform mundane household tasks and learn from past experiences.


Ashutosh Saxena, assistant professor of computer science at Cornell University, has been named one of seven Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows for 2012. As a Microsoft Fellow, Saxena will receive funding of $200,000 over two years to expand his effort to develop “personal robots” that can take over mundane household tasks and assist the elderly and disabled.

After scanning a room, a robot points to the keyboard it was asked to locate. It uses context to identify objects, such as the fact that a keyboard is usually in front of a monitor. Courtesy: Cornell University Personal Robotics Lab

As director of the Cornell Personal Robotics group, Saxena has developed learning algorithms that enable personal robots to perform household tasks such as unloading items from a dishwasher and placing items in a refrigerator. In Saxena’s Robot Learning Lab in Upson Hall, graduate students are teaching robots to learn and adapt to the cluttered environments of homes, hospitals and nursing homes and the highly unstructured behavior of the humans they work with.

For example, a robot in Saxena’s lab can be shown a series of coffee cups, notice what features they all have in common and learn to recognize the next coffee cup it sees, even if it’s slightly different, and pick it up by whatever sort of handle it has. Similarly, a robot can learn to scan an unfamiliar kitchen to find the sink, dishwasher and cupboards so it knows where and how to place the cups.

Understanding what humans are doing is harder, but the researchers have taught robots to observe humans and identify a number of common activities. The next step, Saxena says, is to link perceptions with actions so a robot could, for example, notice that a patient hasn’t taken his medicine, remind him, and bring the bottle to his bedside.

The Microsoft funding has enabled Saxena to purchase a PR2 robot from Willow Garage, a company devoted to creating hardware for personal robotics research. Both Saxena and Willow Garage are proposing to make the results of this research freely available.

The new robot, dubbed “Kodiak,” is mobile, has two arms and, most importantly, provides feedback on the amount of force its hands exert so it can, for example, pick up an egg, or even slice a cucumber. 

Saxena, who joined the Cornell faculty in 2009, received his B.Tech. from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur in 2004 and his M.S and Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2006 and 2009, respectively. 

Saxena's Cornell page:


Video demonstrating Kodiak's capabilities:


- Edited by Chris Vavra, Control Engineering, www.controleng.com 

See more about machine control at controleng.com/machinecontrol.

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