LACK-ING THE SKILLS

Robots are about as bad as humans at assembling IKEA furniture

IKEA furniture always seems so great, in theory. It’s cheap, and surely it can’t be that hard to put together a Vittsjö or a Nornäs, you think—until you’ve schlepped it home, opened up the packaging and found that even an advanced degree in structural engineering won’t help you get that new coffee table up any time soon. It seems that robots—amazingly—are no better at this seemingly simple task.

Researchers Francisco Suárez-Ruiz and Quang-Cuong Pham at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore are trying to figure out how to get robots to assemble IKEA furniture, but as MIT Technology Review reports, it’s proving an uphill struggle. Although robots are great at assembling complex things like cars, they’re not so great at doing so on their own. That’s because robots can complete individual, programmed tasks efficiently and indefinitely. But right now, most robots aren’t so great at seeing the world as humans do, or picking up random objects and trying to make sense of them.

The Nanyang research team wants to help change that by building a robot that can assemble an IKEA chair. The team’s robot has two arms, both with six points of articulation and grippers at the end, and a six-camera vision system that’s theoretically accurate down to 3 mm (0.11 inches). That means even the seemingly endless series of variously-sized wooden dowels that come with IKEA products shouldn’t be a problem for the robot. It’s supposed to be able to pick up a dowel with one arm, a chair leg with the other, and put the two pieces together.

But the dowels are actually pushing the limits of the robot’s vision system, resulting in the robot looking like two inebriated humans trying to put the furniture together in slow motion. In the end, as the video shows, the robot did actually manage to get the dowel in. The research team published their findings Sept. 16. They plan to keep working on the robot until it’s managed to master all the tasks required to build the chair.

While there have been other robots that have built some IKEA furniture on their own—like the MIT robots that built a Lack table in 2013 (which is pretty much the easiest thing to assemble from the Swedish store)—none have managed to identify and assemble something as complicated as a chair.

Perhaps in a few years, if Suárez-Ruiz and Pham are able to build on their research, robots will be able to rid us of the supposedly simple activity that routinely leads us to fight with our partners or hurl expletives at pieces of particleboard and bags of screws.

For now, we’ll just have to rely on our own guile.

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