Trash sorting is not the project’s final goal. “We're going to try to build robots that can, you know, live amongst us and help us out in our daily lives,” says Hans Peter Brondmo, the Norwegian executive with tousled iron-colored hair leading the project. That’s the project’s moonshot, to use the lab’s self-mythologizing lingo for projects such as stratospheric internet balloons , the ill-fated face computer Google Glass, and flying wind turbines.Sorting trash was chosen as a convenient challenge to test the project’s approach to creating more capable robots. It’s using artificial intelligence software developed in collaboration with Google to make robots that learn complex tasks through on-the-job experience. The hope is to make robots less reliant on human coding for their skills, and capable of adapting quickly to complex new tasks and environments.
The robot that moved WIRED’s misplaced coffee cup used a control system honed by five months of experience from dozens of robots sorting trash five days a week. X says its moonshot-hunting employees usually put around 20 percent of trash in the wrong place. The robots can reduce that down to less than 4 percent, helping Alphabet meet city of Mountain View recycling goals.
“We haven't solved the whole problem, but we've made enough progress that we have high confidence that we're onto something,” says Brondmo. As he speaks, robots occasionally buzz past his office on their rounds between trash stations—illustrating both progress and their limits; each is accompanied by at least one X employee, on hand to hit the red stop button on the robot’s neck if something goes wrong.