Headline November 09 2019/ '' 'LEARNINGS A.I. LITERATURE' ''




A ROBOT THAT CAN SOLVE a Rubik's Cube is not new. Researchers previously designed machines specifically for the task-

Devices that look nothing like a hand - and they can solve the puzzle in less than a second. But building the devices that work like a human hand is a painstaking process in which engineers spend months laying down rules that define each tiny movement.

The OpenAI project was an achievement of sorts because its researchers did not program each movement into their robotic hand. That might take decades if not centuries, considering the complexity of a mechanical device with a thumb and four fingers.

The lab's researchers built a computer system that learned to solve the Kubik's Cube largely on its own.

''WHAT is exciting about this work is that the system learns,'' said Jeff Clune, a robotics professor at the University of Wyoming. ''It doesn't memorize one way to solve the problem. It learns.''

Development began with the simulation of both the hand and the cube - a digital recreation of the hardware on the third floor of the OpenAI's San Francisco headquarters.

Inside the simulation, the hand learned to solve the puzzle through extreme trial and error. It spent the equivalent of 10,000 years spinning the tiles up, down, left and right and completing the task over and over again.

The researchers randomly changed the simulation in small but distinct ways. They changed the size of the hand and the color of the tiles and the amount of friction between the tiles. After the training, the hand learned to deal with the unexpected.

When the researchers transferred this computer learning to the physical hand, it could solve the puzzle on its own. Thanks to the randomness introduced in simulation, it could even solve the puzzle when wearing a rubber glove or with two fingers tied together.

At OpenAI and similar labs at Google, the University of Washington and Berkeley, many researchers believe this kind of ''machine learning'' will help robots master tasks they cannot master today and deal with randomness of the physical world.

Right now, robots cannot reliably sort through the bin on random items moving through a  warehouse.
The hope is that it will soon be possible. But getting there is expensive.

That is why OpenAI, led by the Silicon Valley start-up guru Sam Altman, recently signed a billion -dollar deal with Microsoft. And it's why the lab wanted the world to see a demo of its robotic hand solving a Rubik's Cube.

One recent Tuesday, the lab released a 50-page research paper describing the science of the project. It also distributed a news release to news outlets across the globe.

''In order to keep their operation going, this is what they have to do,'' said Zachary Lipton, a professor in the machine learning group of Carnegie ellon University in Pittsburgh. ''It's their life blood.''

When The New York Times was shown an early version of the news release, we asked to see the hand in action.

On the first attempt, the hand dropped the cube after a few minutes of twisting and turning. A researcher placed the cube back into its palm. On the next attempt it completed the puzzle without a hitch.

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