These robots will assemble your IKEA furniture

During the White House's "We The Geeks" Google+ Hangout on robotics, a number of cutting-edge automatons -- like the IKEA Bot -- are on display.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read
A pair of IKEA Bots assembling furniture live during the White House's "We The Geeks" Google+ Hangout. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET.

Anyone who's shopped at IKEA knows that the worst part of the process is looking at a wordless instruction manual and bemoaning the loss of a Saturday afternoon. That's why the IKEA Bot is the best thing to happen to cheap, modern home furnishing. It also happens to display the bright future for robotic teamwork being used to complete complex assembly procedures.

Demonstrated by Daniela Rus, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, during the White House "We The Geeks" Google+ Hangout on Friday, the IKEA Bot was one of many automatons on display during the live-streamed event.

The "We The Geeks" Hangout is part of the administration's focus on highlighting the future of science, technology, and innovation. Other sessions have included one on the innovations behind the development of real-life superpowers, like invisibility and super strength, that took place during this year's Comic-Con and one titled "Asteroids" that featured Bill Nye and focused on current space exploration efforts and challenges.

As for how the IKEA Bot can pull off a complicated task like assembling your desk, it's important to note that it works in numbers, with two bots being used in the demonstration. To start, the bots examine the furniture product's CAD file and then the system of actions necessary to build it.

"All of this is done autonomously without any human intervention," Rus explained. She noted the common concern that with the rise of task robots like the IKEA Bot, people may fear the loss of human jobs, but added that in the future, robots will not only make jobs easier, but will increase our efficiency in all aspects of life.

That sentiment was echoed by Rodney Brooks, the president of Rethink Robotics, and his robot Baxter, a Wall-E-esque torso that was capable of picking up and moving coffee cups before dumping tea bags inside. Baxter was also capable of realizing when it had failed its task and was able to recover and try again on its own, as demonstrated by Brooks when he slipped a coffee cup out of the way mid-demonstration.

The robot Baxter that can realize when it has failed at a task, reorient itself, and try again. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET.

When asked how Baxter could bring more jobs home -- a frequently harped on point from moderators Vijay Kumaras and Tom Kalil -- Brooks stressed that human job loss should not be a point of concern. "This lets us let a factory worker become a supervisor of robots and increase their productivity," Brooks said.

The "We The Geeks" discussion then segued to a Q&A session, which touched on everything from the future of robot teachers to whether or not the Singularity -- the point at which artificial intelligence surpasses that of human intelligence -- is a reasonable concern for current robotics experts. (The short answer is no.)

Ending with broad questions on the overall future of robotics in society, Rus used her IKEA Bot example to make a telling point. "I want us to go from a PC society to a PR society: from a personal computer society to a persona robot society," she said.

In Rus' eyes, our personal robots will soon be folding our laundry, unloading our dishwashers, and driving our cars. Who wouldn't want that future?