NVIDIA aims to build better robots with the Isaac Initiative

It’s yet another stab at playing an essential role in AI development.

NVIDIA wants robots everywhere. On the heels of its Jetson TX2 hardware for robots and drones, NVIDIA announced the Isaac Initiative at Computex today, a platform focused on accelerating development for a wide variety of mechanical devices. Named after author Isaac Asimov, it brings together the Jetson TX2 with the company's APIs for perceiving and moving around environments (the Astro AV Stack); the "Isaac Training Lab" for teaching machines in photorealistic, simulated environments; and a collection of open-source platforms for things like rolling robots and drones.

The plan, according to NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang, is to make it easier for developers to build robots. And a big part of that is having robots train themselves. During his Computex keynote, Huang showed off how a program taught itself to play hockey in the virtualized Isaac lab. By running several instances of the program at once, and keeping only the versions of it that got better at hockey, he was able to train something that could easily make goals. That was also true when it came to playing golf: The program went from not knowing how to hold a golf club to scoring holes-in-one without any human intervention.

Based on that demo alone, the Isaac Training Lab is shaping up to be the most intriguing part of the new platform. It's an offshoot of NVIDIA's Project Holodeck, but instead of having humans training in a virtual environment, it's meant for robot software. The lab is photorealistic and obeys the laws of physics, which is important for translating what a program learns into the real world when it's powering a physical robot. It's all fairly basic-looking at the moment, but NVIDIA might be on to something. While it's possible to manually program robots to do your bidding, it'd be far simpler if they could train themselves and get better over time.

NVIDIA's first clients for the Isaac Initiative include Toyota, which is using it for service robots, and drone maker Teal. Much like the company's forays into AI and self-driving, the Isaac Initiative isn't something that will have a direct impact on consumers anytime soon, but it paves the way for NVIDIA to be an essential part of a robot-powered future.

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