Artificial Intelligence and the IKEA flat pack

Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems to be the buzzword of the moment. The term evokes strong feelings ranging from hope of improvements in the quality of life for millions of people, especially through advances in medicine, to fear of barely controlled algorithms that cannot explain their actions. Nonetheless, it can be hard to distinguish between hype, re-branded optimization techniques, and algorithms that really do learn from experience rather than following a set of rules.

However, in case you missed it, a Singapore team has made real, tangible progress to which most of us can relate. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University published a paper in Science Robotics last week. Following five years of research and many failed attempts, they programmed a robot to perform a task that befuddles most mere mortals: it built an Ikea chair! See the video of the Robot in action.

Of course, the robot cheated a little – the big pieces were laid out visibly and, worse, the robot actually read the instructions.

Nonetheless, that it took so many years shows merely that computers still think literally not laterally. A true intelligence would have long despaired, thrown the pieces at the wall (with suitable accompanying commentary) and called a student from Craigslist. It’s just common sense.