December 20, 2015

Robots learn by watching how-to videos

Scanning several videos on the same how-to topic, a computer finds instructions they
have in common and combines them into one step-by-step series.

(December 20, 2015)  When you hire new workers you might sit them down to watch an instructional video on how to do the job. What happens when you buy a new robot?

Cornell researchers are teaching robots to watch instructional videos and derive a series of step-by-step instructions to perform a task. You won’t even have to turn on the DVD player; the robot can look up what it needs on YouTube. The work is aimed at a future when we may have “personal robots” to perform everyday housework – cooking, washing dishes, doing the laundry, feeding the cat – as well as to assist the elderly and people with disabilities.

The researchers call their project ”RoboWatch.” Part of what makes it possible is that there is a common underlying structure to most how-to videos. And, there’s plenty of source material available. YouTube offers 180,000 videos on “How to make an omelet” and 281,000 on “How to tie a bowtie.” By scanning multiple videos on the same task, a computer can find what they all have in common and reduce that to simple step-by-step instructions in natural language.

Why do people post all these videos? “Maybe to help people or maybe just to show off,” said graduate student Ozan Sener, lead author of a paper on the video parsing method presented Dec. 16 at the International Conference on Computer Vision in Santiago, Chile.  Sener collaborated with  colleagues at Stanford University, where he is currently a visiting researcher.