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This robot could beat you at Jenga

CAMBRIDGE, MA. – Robots are an increasingly common feature of everyday life, whether they are cleaning your house or stacking shelves at the grocery store.

Now engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a robot that performs a seemingly more frivolous task: playing Jenga.

That popular game involves removing one block at a time from a stack of 54 arranged in 18 layers of three.

As anyone who has tried it will know, Jenga requires increasing levels of concentration and dexterity to remove the blocks without knocking the whole tower over.

The MIT machine, however, is perfectly equipped for the task.

With a soft-pronged gripper, external camera and force-sensing wrist cuff, the robot can both see and feel individual blocks in a Jenga tower, according to an MIT statement.

It “learns” whether to remove a specific block in real-time using visual and tactile feedback, in much the same way as a human player would switch blocks if the tower started to wobble.

Full details of the research were published January 30 in the journal Science Robotics.

For Alberto Rodriguez, assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering at MIT, the robot represents an advance in the use of tactile, physical interactions in order to learn new tasks.

“This is very difficult to simulate, so the robot has to learn in the real world, by interacting with the real Jenga tower,” said Rodriguez in the statement.

“The key challenge is to learn from a relatively small number of experiments by exploiting common sense about objects and physics.”

During a few informal trials the robot matched up well against human Jenga players.

“We saw how many blocks a human was able to extract before the tower fell, and the difference was not that much,” said study author Miquel Oller.

However the robot is not able to use the same strategy as a human player would in a competitive game, such as removing a block that would leave an opponent with a particularly difficult task in the next round.

While a Jenga-playing robot sounds fun, there are plenty of other practical applications for this kind of technology.

It could be used to sort recyclables from landfill trash, or assemble consumer products such as cellphones, said Rodriguez.

Developments in robotics continue to move fast, and one London airport may soon offer a robot valet service.

Later this year, London Gatwick Airport will test an autonomous robot that slides a large, slender “bed” beneath vehicles and moves them to spots in the lot.

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