Robots Learn by Watching How-to Videos


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When you hire new workers you might sit them down to watch an instructional video on how to do the job. What happens when you buy a new robot?

Cornell researchers are teaching robots to watch instructional videos and derive a series of step-by-step instructions to perform a task. You won’t even have to turn on the DVD player; the robot can look up what it needs on YouTube. The work is aimed at a future when we may have “personal robots” to perform everyday housework – cooking, washing dishes, doing the laundry, feeding the cat – as well as to assist the elderly and people with disabilities.

The researchers call their project ”RoboWatch.” Part of what makes it possible is that there is a common underlying structure to most how-to videos. And, there’s plenty of source material available. YouTube offers 180,000 videos on “How to make an omelet” and 281,000 on “How to tie a bowtie.” By scanning multiple videos on the same task, a computer can find what they all have in common and reduce that to simple step-by-step instructions in natural language.

Why do people post all these videos? “Maybe to help people or maybe just to show off,” said graduate student Ozan Sener, lead author of a paper on the video parsing method presented Dec. 16 at the International Conference on Computer Vision in Santiago, Chile.  Sener collaborated with  colleagues at Stanford University, where he is currently a visiting researcher.

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A key feature of their system, Sener pointed out, is that it is “unsupervised.” In most previous work, robot learning is accomplished by having a human explain what the robot is observing – for example, teaching a robot to recognize objects by showing it pictures of the objects while a human labels them by name. Here, a robot with a job to do can look up the instructions and figure them out for itself.

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