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On the rooftop of the building that houses the Facebook AI Research (FAIR) lab in Mountain View, California, there is a bootcamp for robots where the sun beams down on Daisy, a hexapod who is learning how to walk on a dirt jogging path. Her foot has become stuck in mulch as she struggles to wrestle free. A team of Facebook AI researchers eagerly look on, watching to see what she will do next as she moves forward with the curiosity and experimentation of a toddler. One flight down, Daisy’s counterpart Pluto, a red arm robot, is learning how to reach for an object in its playpen. Toys are strewn everywhere. 

Facebook is leading an effort to teach robots how to think for themselves and develop human-like intuition that will enable them to navigate unknown circumstances. The approach is called embodied AI, which means giving software a physical body to explore, and is a more flexible way of learning than with pre-programmed AI which is limited by deterministic algorithms and canned data sets.

However, with all of the recent scrutiny by the G7 and U.S. government, the mere mention of Facebook training robots might strike fear in the hearts of those already concerned about the social network. Yet, what I witnessed during my visit to the Facebook Robotics Lab made me think we’re quite far from the sci-fi AI apocalypse often tweeted about by Elon Musk.

What follows is an edited transcript of my discussion with Facebook AI researchers, Roberto Calandra and Franziska Meier, who are working with physical robots in physical environments, and Dhruv Batra, who gave me an exclusive interview on milestones achieved by Habitat, an embodied agent platform that trains virtual robots in virtual environments.

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