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Doctoral student Ethan Gordon commands the robot to feed him a strawberry. (James Thorne / GeekWire Photo)

Robotics researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have developed a robotic system that can feed pieces of fruit to humans on command. The work is an early-stage project aimed at helping people who are unable to perform essential tasks live more independently.

At a demonstration this week, doctoral student Ethan Gordon gave the command: “Alexa, tell the robot to get a strawberry.” The robotic arm swooped down to a plate, found a strawberry using sensors, stabbed it with a fork, and fed it to Gordon.

To pull off the task, the researchers obsessed over details that most people intuitively know, but few of us study. The team trained their robot by asking real people to feed a mannequin. They then turned those habits into a set of rules.

Of the handful of fruits they trained the robot to work with, bananas are the hardest. If you spear then vertically, they slip off. If you stab them too much, they turn to mush. Leave them out on a plate, and they’ll become stickier over time.

While picking the food presented a physics problem, feeding it to people made for an even trickier social one.

“Feeding is so intimate. It’s also a social activity,” said Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee, one of the researchers and a postdoc in the Allen School at UW. The team learned from people and caregivers how to make a robot feed people the way a fellow human would.

The team rigged their robot up to receive commands from Amazon’s Alexa, but said that it could be integrated with other voice assistants as well. The team’s software is publicly available and their initial findings have been published.

From left to right, team members Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee, Hanjun Song, Siddhartha Srinivasa, Gilwoo Lee and Ethan Gordon. The team also includes Rosario Scalise and Jeffrey Maxwell, who are responsible for setting up the voice control, and other members of the Personal Robotics Lab. (James Thorne / GeekWire Photo)

Robotic arms are so common on assembly lines that you might think they’re just a few years away from becoming home helpers. But Siddhartha “Sidd” Srinivasa, professor of computer science and engineering at UW, said that the day of a fully functional home-based feeding robot is most likely decades away. One tech company, Obi, sells a robot that can feed people, but it requires the help of a caregiver and has limited functionality.

Srinivasa splits his time between UW and Amazon, which hired him as its director of robotics last year to help the retail giant automate its fulfillment centers. Srinivasa came to Seattle from Carnegie Mellon University with his entire team of more than a dozen researchers in tow.

More than 11 million Americans need help with what are called activities of daily life, which include eating and five other common tasks like bathing and dressing. The researchers said the lessons they learned about intimate robot-human interaction could be applied to robots that help in these other activities.

As they continue to develop the robot, the research team wants it to receive non-voice commands for people who cannot speak. They’re also collaborating with the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology at UW to get regular feedback from caregivers and patients.

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