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1st February 2019

Robot learns to play Jenga

A new robot developed by MIT engineers is capable of playing Jenga – a game in which players take turns removing one piece at a time from a tower of 54 wooden blocks.

The machine is equipped with a soft-pronged gripper, a force-sensing wrist cuff, and an external camera, all of which it uses to see and feel the tower and its individual pieces.

As the robot carefully pushes against a block, a computer takes in visual and tactile feedback from its camera and cuff, and compares these measurements to moves that the robot previously made. It also considers the outcomes of those moves – specifically, whether a block, in a certain configuration and pushed with a certain amount of force, was successfully extracted or not. In real-time, the robot then "learns" whether to keep pushing or move to a new block, in order to keep the tower from falling.

"Unlike in more purely cognitive tasks or games such as chess or Go, playing the game of Jenga also requires mastery of physical skills – such as probing, pushing, pulling, placing, and aligning pieces. It requires interactive perception and manipulation, where you have to go and touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks," says Alberto Rodriguez, Assistant Professor in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "This is very difficult to simulate, so the robot has to learn in the real world, by interacting with the real Jenga tower. The key challenge is to learn from a relatively small number of experiments by exploiting common sense about objects and physics."

The tactile learning system developed here could be used in applications beyond Jenga, especially in tasks that need careful physical interaction, such as separating recyclable objects from landfill trash and assembling consumer products, according to Rodriguez.

Details of the robot appear in the journal Science Robotics.




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