ASPEN, Colo.—Robots can be awkward. Even the most advanced we have—DARPA's automated pack mule, Softbank's "emotional" machine—are reminiscent of toddlers taking their first, tentative steps. "The Robot" is so named because, no matter how smart our mechanical assistants seem to get, their movements are distinctively stilted.
What this has meant, among other things, is a world of service robots that have been extremely limited in their ability to make our lives a little easier. There are Roombas, of course—oh, such Roombas—but in terms of the robots that can interact smoothly and seamlessly with the world around them, picking things up and putting them away and otherwise lending us a non-human hand ... there aren't many. Algorithms rely on patterns; the patterns of human life are notoriously difficult to discern.
Which is why we have put a robot on Mars, but we have yet to avail ourselves of a robot that can clear the table—or do the dishes, or do the laundry, or make the bed—for us. Robots, like humans, have to coordinate their intelligence systems with their physical outputs. They have to negotiate around a physical world that is full of uncertainty and surprise, using vision—"vision"—that is blurry and out of focus. They have to link their senses to their sensors.