Robotics expert moves entire team to University of Washington, including famous Oreo-cracking robot

Robotics expert Siddhartha “Sidd” Srinivasa, who joined the University of Washington from Carnegie Mellon University this fall, delivers the keynote address at the UW’s Research Day and Open House in Seattle on Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Researchers inside the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering in Seattle are developing innovative solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. But one new arrival is known for a different achievement: successfully separating an Oreo cookie from the cream.

His name is HERB, short for the “Home Exploring Robot Butler,” and his accomplishment in a 2013 promotional video for the iconic cookie maker was actually no small milestone in the field of general-purpose robotics.

“What’s really exciting is that we never built this robot to separate cookie from cream,” said Siddhartha “Sidd” Srinivasa, the robotics expert who joined the University of Washington this fall after 18 years at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Actually, the Oreo is the most sensitive and delicate object that we had ever manipulated,” he said. “But we were really excited by the fact that the building blocks of autonomy that we had built — of perception, of planning, of control, of machine learning — were such that we were actually able to transfer the ideas, the algorithms, to this fairly delicate and really complicated object.”

“Also,” he added, “our failures were delicious.”

Srinivasa is a leader in robotic manipulation and human-robot interaction who founded CMU’s Personal Robotics Lab in 2005. He moved to Seattle this year along with his entire team of more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate researchers, becoming the latest renowned computer scientist to join the UW faculty.

His keynote address at the Allen School’s Research Day and Open House on Wednesday served as his introduction to many in the Seattle region’s technology and business communities. Srinivasa and his team, who arrived at the UW this fall, are slated to move into a new lab inside the Allen School’s second computer science building, currently under construction across the street from the first.

Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh is the world’s biggest robotics institute in the world, with 250 robotics experts, and Srinivasa’s lab was the biggest there. So why did he and his team decide to move to the Pacific Northwest?

“I wanted make true impact — I wanted to be interdisciplinary,” he said in response to that question after his talk. “Sometimes when you’re so large, you tend to be in your own little silos.”

He cited the ability to collaborate at the UW not only with experts in computer science and electrical engineering but also with leading researchers from the medical school, biomechanical engineering and other relevant specialities who are based a short distance away — a walk across campus vs. a flight to another city.

Food and assistive technologies are running themes in Srinivasa’s lab. During his talk, he cited the project above — a robotic arm that can feed a person — as an example of the complex challenges that arise in robot-human interaction.

The ability to manipulate deformable objects is difficult enough for a robot, but there’s also the social interaction between robot and human, determining how and when people want to be fed.

“You don’t want a robot that keeps shoving food into your mouth,” he explained. “You want a robot that understands the cadence of human dialogue, of human needs and wants.”

Among other approaches, the project uses facial and gesture recognition technology to help the robot perceive and react to human intention.

“Sidd has done incredible work,” said Hank Levy, the chair of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, introducing Srinivasa at the event. “Sadly for him, his robots are more famous than he is.”

Speaking of HERB, the famous robot wasn’t in attendance at the Wednesday event, having traveled to Canada last week to take part in a TV show that Srinivasa wasn’t allowed to name. But when he returns to his new home in Seattle, HERB still has lots of work to do. Srinivasa acknowledged that the robot is still only able to successfully separate the cookie from the cream about three out of 10 times.

“The Oreo problem,” he said, “is still wide open.”