An article ran in the New York Times a few weeks ago about some researchers in Singapore who set out to build a robot that could conquer “one of the hardest human tasks”. Part of the article headline won’t be a surprise to you since I already told you the general idea. But the other part of the headline was a surprise to me. Maybe I should just quit dissembling though and reveal the headline:
I wasn’t too sure who thought that assembling IKEA furniture was one of humanities hardest tasks: the New York Times, or the researchers in Singapore. I know there are lots of people who aren’t crazy about assembling IKEA furniture, but I don’t think it’s very high on the list of challenging tasks for humans, so I forged ahead and did my own survey of ten people chosen at random, asking them what they thought the hardest human task was. These are the answers I got:
1) Building a stargate
2) Repairing a space telescope
3) Underwater welding
4) Climbing a mountain in the nude.
5) Unicycling down a mountain: maybe the same one you just climbed in the nude.
6) Teaching a cat to read music AND play piano
7) Toilet training a cat
8) Training two cats to use the toilet simultaneously
9) Training a cat to plunge a toilet
10) Trying to understand what would possess a cat to insert itself into a paper tube
I don’t know what’s up with all these cat responses. Somehow I guess I just randomly encountered an inordinate number of people who happen to like cats. I don’t blame these people one iota. Cats are hilarious. Maybe I asked the wrong people. I dunno. In my defense, I was in a pet store at the time. But I also want to point out the distinct lack of people in my survey who said anything about IKEA furniture.
Anyway, for whatever reason, these researchers over in Singapore decided to build a robot that could assemble a piece of IKEA furniture, specifically the STEFAN chair, reasoning that this would use many human skills such as: planning, reading instructions, ignoring instructions, subsequently messing around for thirty minutes until your wife says “Just read the damned instructions would you?”, overdriving the fasteners and damaging the furniture pieces, swearing, and throwing the pieces around or possibly throwing something else such as a unicycle.
Actually, the group in Singapore are not the first group to construct a robot that can assemble IKEA furniture. Back in 2013, a team at MIT built an “IKEAbot” that was able to assemble the LACK table. Note that the LACK table is so-named because it lacks complexity: it has only five pieces. Four of them are screw-in legs. A baby hamster could assemble a LACK table. Or maybe a baby octopus.
This reminds me. Did you ever wonder how they name IKEA furniture? I did. I even wrote about it back in 1989, in my first year of Med School. It was in the class newspaper: The Chronic Enquirer. I think it was one of the first humor columns I ever wrote. (I use the archaic term “humor column” because blogs hadn’t been invented yet. Remember that the World Wide Web had just come out of Labour and Delivery in 1989.)
I probably should have quit while I was ahead. But I didn’t.
Therefore, here’s that column, inside jokes and all: