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How to train your robot (to feed you dinner)

About 1 million adults in the United States need someone to help them eat, according to census data from 2010. It's a time-consuming and often awkward task, one largely done out of necessity rather than choice. National Science Foundation-funded researchers are working on a robotic system that can help make it easier. After identifying different foods on a plate, the robot can strategize how to use a fork to pick up and deliver the desired bite to a person's mouth. The idea was to develop an autonomous feeding system that would be attached to people's wheelchairs and feed people whatever they wanted to eat. To design a skewering and feeding strategy that changes based on the food item, the researchers combined two different algorithms. First they used an object-detection algorithm called RetinaNet, which scans the plate, identifies the types of food on it and places a frame around each item. Then they developed SPNet, an algorithm that examines the type of food in a specific frame and tells the robot the best way to pick up the food. For example, SPNet tells the robot to skewer a strawberry or a slice of banana in the middle, and spear carrots at one of the two ends. The team is currently working to get feedback from caregivers and patients in assisted living facilities on how to improve the system to match people's needs.

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