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HERB vs. the Oreo Cookie

on Tue, 03/19/2013 - 11:05

According to the mythology of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it is the microprocessor created by Cyberdyne Systems engineer Miles Dyson that sets the stage for Skynet’s domination of the planet years later. If the robots ever do rise up against humanity, however, the event may trace back to March 2013 and the day that HERB learned how to successfully separate an Oreo cookie. “The Oreo is very brittle,” Siddhartha Srinivasa, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotic Institute, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s a very delicate object. It’s a very small object.” Too brittle, delicate and small, in fact, for a robot to learn how to pull apart without smashing it into pieces—until Srinivasa and a small handful of his students “taught” CMU’s resident robot HERB how to do it.

Oreo has been running a “cookie vs. cream” advertising campaign since the Super Bowl, and contacted the Robotics Institute shortly thereafter to add a twist to the marketing effort. The resulting video premiered on YouTube on March 8, 2013, and garnered over 200,000 views in its first week of availability. The three-minute online commercial features numerous unsuccessful attempts on the part of HERB, using such household appliances as a frying pan and kitchen knife, before finding the proper method. After first gently separating the twin cookie parts of an Oreo, HERB removes the majority of the cream by scrapping the cookie against a cheese slicer and wipes the remaining particles away with a towel. “Present Oreo cookie for human consumption” is the final task.

HERB is an acronym for “Household Exploring Robotic Butler,” and already has a number of videos on YouTube spotlighting the robot’s ability to serve alcoholic beverages, prepare basic meals and microwave TV dinners. “We’ve been working on HERB for the past seven years,” Siddhartha Srinivasa explains. “It’s been both hard and also very fulfilling in that finally we’re able to do the kind of tasks we dreamed of doing with a robot like HERB—separating the cookie from the cream of an Oreo.” While that last part may have been spoken tongue-in-cheek, the simple task is still a minor breakthrough in robotics. According to the Post-Gazette, Srinivasa initially believed the challenge was impossible as HERB had yet developed the necessary “fine motor skills” necessary to separate an Oreo without breaking it.

“We had a lot of destroyed cookies,” Srinivasa admits in regards to the give-and-take process of writing sets of general instructions for the robot to follow, then constructing new algorithms to correct the flaws in the original programming. The end result is more than an entertaining promotional video for Oreo cookies as it demonstrated the field of robotics research is still wide open and unexplored. As Srinivasa himself says, “It really showed us that our robot was a lot more capable than we thought.”

Hopefully that capability does not translate into a future robot uprising, as it would be ironic if the downfall of mankind was all because of an Oreo cookie.

Anthony Letizia (March 19, 2013)

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