Ikea's Stefan pine chair costs just $25. You are not deceived by its cheapness. You know the real price you pay is the time and frustration required to assemble the dang thing.

That's why it's optimal to pay someone else to put your Ikea furniture together. Somewhat unsurprisingly, paying other people to do unfulfilling tasks you dread is scientifically proven to boost your happiness.

Ikea knows this. That's precisely why they purchased TaskRabbit last fall. Ikea recently began offering furniture assembly and mounting services through the TaskRabbit app. You can pay Taskers an hourly rate to put together your Ikea desk, bed, cabinet, or bookcase.

Now, robots might be coming for those jobs. Researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore programmed a robot to assemble a Stefan chair, the New York Times reports.

Task completed in 20 minutes and 19 seconds

After "reading" the manual, the two-armed robot built the whole chair in just over 20 minutes.

Dr. Quang-Cuong Pham, an engineering professor and one of the paper's authors, told the New York Times this was good challenge for their robot because of the numerous skills required, including perception, planning, and transporting objects. "Because this task requires so many interesting skills for robots, we felt that it could be a good project to push our capabilities to the limit," Pham said.

When presented with the pieces of the chair, the robot took a three-phased approach: mapping, motion planning, and execution.

First--much like a human would--it surveyed the parts. With everything laid out, it began to try to "understand" the task at hand. Humans would use previous furniture assembly experience here. The robot took 3-D photos of everything, then scanned its library to match the pieces to the parts in the manual.

Then, the robot put together its plan of attack. It used open-source software to develop its assembly process. This was the most time-consuming phase, taking 11 minutes.

The final phase was assembly, which took about nine minutes. The arms used grippers--imagine the claw that you guide to grab stuffed toys out of an arcade machine--to pick up the wooden pins that cinch Ikea furniture together. With both arms working at once, it had to avoid getting its arms tangled with each other or in parts.

Its sensors determined when the pins were fully inserted. Both arms worked together to pick up chair pieces and snap them together. Sometimes one arm would hold the pieces steady while the other arm wiggled the pieces into place.

I can't help but assign human qualities to this robot as it calmly assembles the chair. Such great teamwork! And no bickering. This robot is unflappable.

Here's the best part: The robot didn't get it right the first time. Just like humans, it hit a few roadblocks. But unlike humans, it didn't get frustrated. The researchers continued to modify its system until the robot was able to put the chair together without help. Even though the final assembly took less than 21 minutes, this effort took three years of work--much longer than any human would spend assembling a chair.

The robotics and artificial intelligence community is celebrating this achievement not because the world desperately needs more Stefan chairs assembled. It displays how advanced robot technology is becoming. They're capable of more than singular tasks. This autonomous robot can do simple and complex tasks at the same time. Manipulating objects with precision--planning, coordinating, and using the just-right amount of force--opens endless opportunities for our robot overlords.

Science Magazine challenged their staff to build the same chair. They just barely beat the robot with their time. Coordinating and planning weren't problems for the humans. They could do several of these at once. The real challenge? Using those obnoxiously tiny hex wrenches.

Published on: Apr 19, 2018
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