By assembling Ikea chairs, robots steal the one job we never wanted

People sometimes talk about robots being able to carry out all the jobs which are considered too dull, dirty or dangerous for humans to do. Researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore apparently want to add one more “D” to that list: Jobs that are frustrating. With that in mind, they have demonstrated how a pair of off-the-shelf robot arms can be used to assemble a flat-packed Ikea chair in mere minutes. Best of all? The robot arms don’t waste time having raging arguments about whether or not the instructions are being read properly.

“Similar to humans, the robot first localizes the chair parts using vision, then plans the motions to reach those parts, and control its motion so as to realize the different tasks — [such as] inserting a pin or carrying the frame,” Francisco Suárez Ruiz, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends.

In all, the robot took 20 minutes to put together the Ikea chair. Localizing the parts took just three seconds but planning its movement took 11 minutes, and assembly an extra nine. Ruiz said that the work is interesting because it shows a robot’s ability to perform a task which has been designed specifically to be accomplished using human dexterity.

robot arms assemble ikea chair image 2
Nanyang Technological University

“Fine manipulation is one of the key human skills,” he explained. “In general, robotics researchers are interested in reproducing those key human skills in their robots. We wanted to reproduce the generality of human ‘hardware:’ the same eyes and hands are used to assemble many different objects. Also, the capabilities that we develop based on off-the-shelf hardware can be easily and largely deployed in the industry. This approach of generality and off-the-shelf hardware makes the task of assembling a chair, that is already complex, even more difficult.”

However, thanks to key advances in computer vision, planning, control, integration of multiple software and hardware components, and bimanual manipulation, it is now possible for robots to carry out some of these functions.

Don’t start fearing an Ikea chair-assembling Skynet just yet, though. The robot had to be advised on the best way to assemble the chair, meaning that there was still a human in the loop. The finished product also wasn’t perfect, since the robot arms were unable to carry out some of the ultra-fine work involving placing dowels in the chair’s pre-drilled holes. But all this may change in the future.

“We are planning to incorporate A.I. so that the robot can figure out by itself the sequence of instructions,” Ruiz said.

A paper describing the work, “Can Robots Assemble an Ikea Chair?” was recently published in the journal Science Robotics.

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