A group of scientists have developed a robot that can autonomously assemble a chair from IKEA without any help or interruptions.

Developed at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, the robot is equipped with a 30 camera and two robotic arms pacifically designed to grab and pick-up different objects.  As for the Al component of this new furniture building robot, the robot’s “brain” consists of algorithms based on the code from three different open source libraries.

All of this, of course, with the end goal of creating a robot that could self-start and assemble an Ikea chair when the different parts were presented to it and it had no prior “knowledge” or pre-programming.

There are plenty of robots on assembly lines already that can identify specific parts and put them together accordng to a strict set of directions. The difference here is that the robot was simply presented with different parts and first had to problem solve before putting these different parts. As such, this furniture building robot would appear to exhibit an ability to reason, however primordial and rudimentary.

It appears that this mission has been accomplished, and in no longer than 20 minutes and 19 seconds. To be specific, there were 11 minutes and 21 seconds for the planning stage, a mere 3 seconds to locate the pieces needed, and then 8 minutes and 55 seconds for the robot to put the Ikea chair together).  As for the specific model of IKEA chair that this robot managed assemble all by itself, its called the Stefan. First released in 2008, the Stefan is Ikea’s least expensive chair retailing at anywhere between 16 and 30 Euros, depending on the different ways the softwood is finished (black stain or laquer).

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Assembly of the IKEA Stefan chair requires no tools; the 5 wooden parts have pre-drilled holes and are attached together with peg-like fasteners that fit right in said holes. It’s as easy as snapping together lego…for a human.

But can a robot put together the Stefan? It can, and hare’s how it went down:

  1. The five wooden parts of the chair were laid out in front of the two robotic arms as was a receptacle holding the 14 fasteners.
  2. The 3d camera then takes pictures of the puzzling array of objects ion front of it Form there, these images are run through the lines of code and algorithms in the robot’s mainframe, a process that in this case took 11 minutes and 21 seconds.
  3. Then the robot gets to work putting the chair together One robotic arm grabs ahold of a wooden piece, lifts it up, and then turns it around so it is perfectly positioned so that the other robotic arm places in the metal pegs into the pre-drilled holes.

You can see the whole assembly process in this video, which has been sped up four times. It all looks like the robot “knows what it’s doing” and in a way maybe it does, although it does seem curious that at the end of putting the chair together it leaves it resting on its side, doesn’t it? nit would appear, then, that although the robot figured out how the parts go together, it’s still has no concept of “chair”.

Nonetheless, this feat of demonstrable Al based reasoning is remarkable, and lead NTU researchers Pham Quang Cuong, Zhou Xian, and Francisco Suarez-Ruiz believe that this robots and its subsequent iterations could revolutionize manufacturing by replacing conventional assembly line machines (essentially “one trick pony” robots) with a new breed of mechanical worker that can figure out how to assemble all kinds of different parts in different ways.

If you’re still not impressed by this robot you should Consider this: the robot has to not only identify the different pieces and then determine how they fit together, but it also has to establish the right amount of force required to manipulate the pieces without damaging them. And all of this has to be done without the two robotic arms getting in each other’s way.

This is a significant step forward for robotics, and as is the case with any disruptive technology, economists, workers, and humanity at large has some reason to be concerned. Still, although this robot may be able to assemble an IKEA chair, it still has no idea as to what a chair is.