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Mmm! Robot makes cookies

The future of robots is shaping up to be wonderful for couch potatoes: they can fetch beers, fold laundry, and now they can even bake cookies.

This latest breakthrough comes from the Distributed Robotics Lab at MIT, where graduate student Mario Bollini is plugging away at code that allows robots to make decisions for themselves as they accomplish specific tasks.

The Bakerbot, which is a Willow Garage PR2 robot, represents a hybrid approach to this end goal, he said. The robot knows, for example, that four bowls with cookie ingredients are on the table as well as a mixing bowl and a cookie sheet.

"All the manipulation is done on the fly," he said. It calculates, for example, how to pick up the bowls with ingredients and pour them into the mixing bowl, mix them together, and put them in the oven. The result is a baked cookie — not the prettiest cookie in the world, but nevertheless a baked cookie.

Ultimately, researchers would like to use the knowledge (and code) gained from this Bakerbot project and use it to design a robot that would know what to do when asked to bake a cake, for example.

"It would try to understand that, find a recipe for that, and it would try to understand what the recipe is telling it to do and then use actions that it knows how to do to accomplish it," Bollini said.

Beyond baking, robots with these types of skills are already being eyed for factory jobs. Current robots on the assembly line are programmed to do one task over and over again. If someone gets in its way, they get hit. And if they need to do a different task, they have to be completely reprogrammed.

A more dynamic robot could be useful, for example, on an auto assembly line where robots install windshields of all shapes and sizes on several different models of cars and do so without crashing into each other and their human colleagues.

In the more distant future, Bakerbot really might find its home inside a home, particularly for elder care in countries with aging populations such as Japan, Bollini noted. There, they'll likely start out doing cooperative tasks, not baking cookies all by themselves.

"If you're not strong enough to lift the mixing bowl and put it out, the robot will do that part of the task and then the human does things that are easier for the person to do, like recognize where everything is and get it out of the cupboards," he said.

This result might actually be the prettiest cookie in the world.

This report was originally published as "Robot Makes Cookies From (Almost) Scratch" in's "Future of Tech" special section.

John Roach is a contributing writer for Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).