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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Pieter Abbeel, 33

Robots that learn from people

University of California, Berkeley

Helping hands: Pieter Abbeel has programmed robots to learn how to perform tasks without detailed instructions. This robot can fold laundry, while others can fly model helicopters or tie sutures.
Credit: Winni Wintermeyer

Instead of programming robots to handle each step of a new job, Pieter Abbeel, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, has created robots that can observe humans demonstrating a task and then mimic them, or learn from pictures how to handle a piece of flexible material they've never seen before. His robots have learned to perform flying acrobatics, tie surgical sutures, and neatly sort socks.

Abbeel's key innovation was to program the robots so that they can reliably infer the underlying intent of their instructors, filtering out the "noise"—irrelevant variations, or even slight mistakes, in the instructors' demonstrations. Each robot is usually shown around 10 demonstrations before it can extract general rules of behavior. Even without an instructor, it can sometimes work out what to do. For example, Abbeel taught one robot how to fold laundry by giving it some general rules about how fabric behaves, and then showed it around 100 images of clothing so it could analyze how that particular clothing was likely to move as it was handled. After that, the robot could fold towels and sweaters without further instruction. ­—Kristina Grifantini

2011 TR35 Winners

Pieter Abbeel (video)

Robots that learn from people

June Andronick (video)

Software that can’t crash

Jernej Barbič (video)

Speeding up simulations of complex objects

Dan Berkenstock (video)

Cheaper satellite pictures

Brian Gerkey (video)

A common language for robots

Jeff Hammerbacher (video)

Managing huge data sets

Gert Lanckriet (video)

Teaching computers to classify music

Alina Oprea (video)

Guaranteeing cloud security

Aishwarya Ratan (video)

Converting paper records to digital in real time

Noah Snavely (video)

Synthesizing 3-D models from 2-D photographs

Piya Sorcar (video)

Software that can be localized to teach taboo topics

Kun Zhou

Creating movie-quality graphics in real time

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