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Can robots make pizza? Scientists are working on it.

A robot expert says the squishy dough and many steps involved make the task difficult.

Researchers are working on creating a robot that could handle the many functions of making pizza. (iStock)

Do you prefer pepperoni? Pineapple and ham? Veggie? One day, you might be ordering your favorite pizza from a robot.

Researchers at a university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are working on creating a pizza-making robot. Although humans may not find it too difficult to roll out dough, slice toppings and pull it all together, it’s not as easy for a robot.

Robots might be great at, say, helping to manufacture cars.

“Robots are basically preprogrammed to repeat the same actions over and over,” says David Held, a robot expert from Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the members of a pizza-making team.

Making pizza, though, has challenges. For instance, the dough is squishy, with a shape that can change in many ways. It’s much easier to program a robot if the object it needs to manipulate has one solid shape.

Also, pizza-making requires many steps — such as rolling, cutting and gathering — and several tools, including a rolling pin, knife and spatula. There are companies that have developed robotic systems that can make pizza using specialized hardware for each step, but using a standard robot arm and common tools to handle all the functions is trickier. What order should the steps be done in? Which utensil should you pick, and when? “If you need to do a cooking task, there are multiple levels that you have to reason about,” Held says.

Once people get the hang of it, “we don’t even need to consciously think about exactly how we’re doing it — it sort of just happens.” But robots can’t really “figure out what to do on their own.”

To start, the team used a computer simulation to consider how a robot could lift, flatten, gather, move and cut virtual dough. The method involved two levels of robotic reasoning: one that analyzed how it should approach the overall task, and another that analyzed how it should move its grippers to perform each action. The result was considerably better than with the usual programming techniques.

However, don’t expect to see a pizza-making robot in your school cafeteria anytime soon. Held and a couple of other researchers took what they learned from the simulation and used it to program a robot that already exists, called Sawyer. They then had Sawyer try to roll actual pizza dough into a little circle, which it didn’t quite manage to do.

“We got a little bit closer to the right circular shape than the previous methods,” Held says. “But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

For now, people will continue to make pizza the old-fashioned way: with their own hands. Still, a pizza-making robot is a good goal. In a facility for senior citizens, for example, Held says staff eventually could spend less time in the kitchen and more time interacting with residents. And if a robot could deal with squishy dough, it could also work with other objects that can change shape, such as laundry.

“You can imagine robots assisting in hospitals, or robots that clean up toys in day-cares,” Held says. “The general goal is to eventually have robot assistants that can help with whatever the task may be.”

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