For the past couple years, researchers in a San Francisco-based AI Lab operated by Autodesk, maker of AutoCAD and other 3D design software, have been teaching a robot to play with toys.

Teaching might not be the right word. More accurately, the researchers have equipped their robot, which they’ve dubbed Brickbot, with the tools to teach itself how to assemble Lego blocks using the same learning techniques as a child.

It sounds straightforward, but the task of enabling a robot to learn like a human — even a pint-sized one — is immense.

“It’s a complex challenge,” an Autodesk spokesperson told me. “The project … relies on sensor data and machine learning to enable a robot to infer what’s going on in its environment, then adapt on the fly to accomplish an assigned task.”

Robots are well-suited to following strict protocols, but that limits their usefulness. Currently, programming robots on an industrial line is very labor-intensive. A new generation of collaborative robots has made the task easier for many light industrial applications, but working with robots on a line is still the domain of specialists.

Equipping robots to learn on their own could unlock new levels of productivity while aiding the spread of automation by lowering the cost of entry.

Of course, any project like this also raises all kinds of questions about how far machine learning for robotic applications will progress before we humans start to get a little uncomfortable.

The project began with two industrial robotic arms, to which the researchers added cameras and…

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