Don’t be fooled by the towel-folding robot video

Robots in motion are a mesmerising sight, even if they are doing a chore that would be very boring if carried out by a human. So it’s not surprising that one of the week’s most viewed videos on YouTube shows a Californian robot picking up towels from a pile of laundry and neatly folding them.

Views shouldn’t be fooled, though, into thinking that robotic deliverance from domestic chores is at hand.

For a start, the robot (made by a company called Willow Garage and programmed at the University of California, Berkeley) is very slow. The YouTube video is speeded up 50-fold, so what the machine appears to be doing in 30 seconds actually took 25 minutes.

Not only is the robotic housemaid maddeningly slow, it is also far from versatile. Can it iron? Sort very similar black socks into pairs from a pile of laundry? Stuff a duvet into its cover? No.

If you want the full academic paper, it’s here, with the splendid title: “Cloth Grasp Point Detection based on Multiple-View Geometric Cues with Application to Robotic Towel Folding”.

Robot researchers are always optimistic, and Berkeley team have been talking about producing useful household robots within five years. Don’t believe it.

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Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog: www.margaretmccartney.com/blog

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow

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