Future robots may learn from human perspective, thanks to UC Berkeley researchers

Embodied Intelligence/Courtesy

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Robots may soon step out of research labs and into the real world, thanks to a team of UC Berkeley researchers.

Embodied Intelligence, a Bay Area startup co-founded by campus professor Pieter Abbeel and three other campus researchers, is developing software that will make it possible for robots to learn new skills without requiring explicit programming for each task, as traditional robots do. The startup will combine the extensive academic backgrounds of each of its co-founders to bridge the gap between AI research and its real world applications, according to Abbeel.

With the AI software they develop, the team members will effectively be able to revamp robots’ “brains” by embedding themselves into the robots, Abbeel explained. Users could put on a virtual reality headset and controllers and become the eyes and hands of the robot.

“You demonstrate what the robot is supposed to be doing several times … (and the) robot records all the data,” Abbeel said. “Eventually, the robot will say ‘I’ve got it. You’ve shown me enough. I can take over.’ ”

Abbeel said he expects these robots to transform manufacturing, agriculture and pharmaceutical operations, as they learn how to manipulate formal objects. These manipulations could include routing wires in cars or computers, taking parts out of cluttered bins and folding clothes.

All four co-founders of Embodied Intelligence — Abbeel, Peter Chen, Tianhao Zhang and Rocky Duan — have pioneered progress in machine learning, working in Abbeel’s lab on campus. Abbeel, Chen and Duan also spent more than a year at OpenAI, a lab founded by major Silicon Valley names including Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, Inc.

But while the number of breakthroughs in AI in the last few years has been significant, Abbeel said he noticed a discrepancy between what has been done in the lab and what has been done in real life.  

“Whenever you’re doing research, you’re building new capabilities, (but they’re) in the lab capabilities, not working in the real world,” Abbeel said. “We want to solve problems that current robotics providers are not solving.”

Amplify Partners led the first round of investments in Embodied Intelligence. The startup raised a total capital of $7 million.

“I was incredibly excited about the entire team,” said Lisha Li, a principal at Amplify Partners. Li knew about Abbeel’s work from her own doctoral research at UC Berkeley, and she had met Duan and Chen at an OpenAI talk last year.

With Abbeel and his team now officially part of the commercial world, Li said an important decision the team must make is choosing the best partner to deploy its technology.

“Part of this is not just in the technology but in working with big organizations,” Li said. “How pliable are you to work with this small team to integrate and deploy solutions? That business aspect is the fun part of the challenge.”

Contact Alicia Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.