May 2, 2012 at 4:22 PM ET
Some robots bake cookies, others cook sausages; there’re even a few that pour beer, though not always perfectly. While those food and drink preparation skills are nice and all, Herb the robot butler is taking on the seemingly far simpler, albeit dexterous, task of microwaving a meal.
Yup, that’s right, a robot learned to nuke food and it does it with minimal instructions. All its masters told it is there’s a microwave in the kitchen and a frozen meal. It does all the rest — in a tight and confined kitchen just like many of us humans use.
Herb, which is short for the Home Exploring Robot Butler, is the creation of Siddartha Srinivasa’s Personal Robotics Group at Carnegie Mellon University. Their aim is to design robots that do things people really want them to around the house — such as cook them meals.
While microwaving a meal isn’t exactly rocket science, it is likely the type of thing a caregiver would do in the home of an elderly or disabled person, where personal robots such as Herb could be particularly useful.
To accomplish the microwaving task, Herb uses spinning lasers to help build 3-D models of its surroundings, cameras to recognize objects, and arms to plan motions. The arms have sensors, allowing Herb to feel around its environment to get a sense for where things are, Srinivasa explains.
While Herb isn’t as precise as an industrial robot on the factory floor, its sensing capabilities allow it to work well in a home alongside humans. And, that, after all, is where we hope personal robots are headed — working with us, not against us.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.