The robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks often begins speeches by reaching into his pocket, fiddling with some loose change, finding a quarter, pulling it out and twirling it in his fingers.
The task requires hardly any thought. But as Dr. Brooks points out, training a robot to do it is a vastly harder problem for artificial intelligence researchers than I.B.M.’s celebrated victory on “Jeopardy!” this year with a robot named Watson.
Although robots have made great strides in manufacturing, where tasks are repetitive, they are still no match for humans, who can grasp things and move about effortlessly in the physical world.
Designing a robot to mimic the basic capabilities of motion and perception would be revolutionary, researchers say, with applications stretching from care for the elderly to returning overseas manufacturing operations to the United States (albeit with fewer workers).
Yet the challenges remain immense, far higher than artificial intelligence hurdles like speaking and hearing.
“All these problems where you want to duplicate something biology does, such as perception, touch, planning or grasping, turn out to be hard in fundamental ways,” said Gary Bradski, a vision specialist at Willow Garage, a robot development company based here in Silicon Valley.
“It’s always surprising, because humans can do so much effortlessly.”
Now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, the Pentagon office that helped jump-start the first generation of artificial intelligence research in the 1960s, is underwriting three competing efforts to develop robotic arms and hands one-tenth as expensive as today’s systems, which often cost $100,000 or more.
Last month President Obama traveled to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to unveil a $500 million effort to create advanced robotic technologies needed to help bring manufacturing back to the United States. But lower-cost computer-controlled mechanical arms and hands are only the first step.