An algorithm inspired by Cornell University's universal jamming gripper robot hand, shown here picking up a glass of water, can teach any industrial robot how to pick up unfamiliar, oddly-shaped objects. (Source: John Amend, Cornell University)
Picking up an object is only part of the problem. The picture shows a gripper spilling a glass of water. After the object is grasped, some purpose must be accomplished. If the water were wine and needed to go from a pitcher into a glass, it would be inportant not to spill it onto the floor or table, and that the robot's 'fingers' not get into the wine. While this is an interesting line of research, I can't see it replacing purpose-built grippers yet.
Ann, this might mark me out as a bit wierd, but I think about this a lot. Whenever I put the silverware away I thnk to myself, how would I program a robot to do this?
What really strikes me about this, and some other situations I have seen, is that people are programming robots to do things using a fairly simple vision system along with memory (a database) and an algorithm. This contrasts with robotics approaches that use all kinds of complex sensors. In many cases they are trying to automate something we do with our simple sensors naturally. Interesting.