HERB paves way for human-like household robotics

Credit: Annette Ko/Art Editor Credit: Annette Ko/Art Editor

The Home Exploring Robot Butler (HERB), a product of Carnegie Mellon’s Personal Robotics Lab, recently performed the frustrating task that all Oreo lovers face — separating the cookie from the cream — as part of Nabisco's Cookies vs. Cream campaign.

In a recent YouTube performance, HERB confidently separates the two halves of an Oreo before removing the “precious cream” and wiping the cookie clean.

Although this task may not demand the abilities of an advanced robot, HERB’s newfound capabilities are an impressive feat and a step toward making robotics technology accessible to the public.

HERB’s Oreo feat brings the public into contact with the current capabilities of robotics. Director Siddhartha Srinivasa and the other researchers presented HERB as a charming robot capable of performing a relatable task, that most people have tried at least once. This choice makes the robot accesible and novel to the average citizen. HERB normally tests algorithms, software, and other technology to perform tasks in a home or business setting, but the Oreo Challenge brings the public’s attention to how advanced current robots can be.

Separating Oreo cookies from the cream seems like a deceptively simple task to a human, but there are a myriad of difficulties for a robot to overcome. First off, an Oreo is a brittle and easily breakable cookie, which meant that HERB had to be able to pull it apart firmly enough to separate the cookies, but gently enough to avoid breaking them. To further complicate matters, no Oreo cookie is the exact size as any other, so the researchers had to program HERB to figure out how to deal with each individual cookie. These tasks seem simple to people because we have fine motor control skills, but those skills are extremely difficult to replicate in robots. HERB had to preform a delicate task that had a lot of variation within it, which indicates that HERB has a great capacity for a variety of complex endeavors.

Though the separation of an Oreo cookie is a trivial matter, this achievement shows the enormous strides the scientific community has made in recent years. Splitting the cookie from the cream is only the beginning of an exciting new age in robotics.