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Someday, you may want your home robot to carry a load of dirty clothes downstairs and deposit them in the washing machine in the far-left corner of the basement. The robot will need to combine your instructions with its visual observations to determine the steps it should take to complete this task.

Mark Hamilton, an MIT PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science and affiliate of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), wants to use machines to understand how animals communicate. To do that, he set out first to create a system that can learn human language “from scratch.”

When robots come across unfamiliar objects, they struggle to account for a simple truth: Appearances aren’t everything. They may attempt to grasp a block, only to find out it’s a literal piece of cake. The misleading appearance of that object could lead the robot to miscalculate physical properties like the object’s weight and center of mass, using the wrong grasp and applying more force than needed.