Artificial Intelligence Robotics & RPA

A new generation of AI-powered robots is taking over warehouses

In the months before the first reports of covid-19 would emerge, a new kind of robot headed to work. Built on years of breakthroughs in deep learning, it could pick up all kinds of objects with remarkable accuracy, making it a shoo-in for jobs like sorting products into packages at warehouses.

Previous commercial robots had been limited to performing tasks with little variation: they could move pallets along set paths and perhaps deviate slightly to avoid obstacles along the way. The new robots, with their ability to manipulate objects of variable shapes and sizes in unpredictable orientations, could open up a whole different set of tasks for automation.

At the time, the technology was still proving itself. But then the pandemic hit. As e-commerce demand skyrocketed and labor shortages intensified, AI-powered robots went from a nice-to-have to a necessity.

Covariant, one of the many startups working on developing the software to control these robots, says it’s now seeing rapidly rising demand in industries like fashion, beauty, pharmaceuticals, and groceries, as is its closest competitor, Osaro. Customers once engaged in pilot programs are moving to integrate AI-powered robots permanently into their production lines.

Knapp, a warehouse logistics technology company and one of Covariant’s first customers, which began piloting the technology in late 2019, says it now has “a full pipeline of projects” globally, including retrofitting old warehouses and designing entirely new ones optimized to help Covariant’s robot pickers work alongside humans.

For now, somewhere around 2,000 AI-powered robots have been deployed, with a typical warehouse housing one or two, estimates Rian Whitton, who analyzes the industrial robotics market at ABI Research. But the industry has reached a new inflection point, and he predicts that each warehouse will soon house upwards of 10 robots, growing the total to tens of thousands within the next few years. “It’s being scaled up pretty quickly,” he says. “In part, it’s been accelerated by the pandemic.”

A new wave of automation

Over the last decade, the online retailing and shipping industries have steadily automated more and more of their warehouses, with the big players leading the way. In 2012, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, a Massachusetts-based robotics company that produces autonomous mobile robots, known in the industry as AMRs, to move shelves of goods around. In 2018, FedEx began deploying its own AMRs, designed by a different Massachusetts-based startup called Vecna Robotics. The same year, the British online supermarket Ocado made headlines with its highly automated fulfillment center in Andover, England, featuring a giant grid of robots whizzing along metallic scaffolding.

But there’s a reason these early waves of automation came primarily in the form of AMRs. From a technical perspective, moving objects from point A to B is one of the easiest robotic challenges to solve. The much harder challenge is manipulating objects to take them off shelves and out of bins, or box them and bag them, the way human workers do so nimbly with their hands.

This is what the latest generation of robotics companies like Covariant and Osaro specialize in, a technology that didn’t become commercially viable until late 2019. Right now such robots are most skilled at simple manipulation tasks, like picking up objects and placing them in boxes, but both startups are already working with customers on more complicated sequences of motions, including auto-bagging, which requires robots to work with crinkly, flimsy, or translucent materials. Within a few years, any task that previously required hands to perform could be partially or fully automated away.

Some companies have already begun redesigning their warehouses to better capitalize on these new capabilities. Knapp, for example, is changing its floor layout and the way it routes goods to factor in which type of worker—robot or human—is better at handling different products. For objects that still stump robots, like a net bag of marbles or delicate pottery, a central routing algorithm would send them to a station with human pickers. More common items, like household goods and school supplies, would go to a station with robots.

Derik Pridmore, cofounder and CEO at Osaro, predicts that in industries like fashion, fully automated warehouses could come online within two years, since clothing is relatively easy for robots to handle.

That doesn’t mean all warehouses will soon be automated. There are millions of them around the world, says Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute who studies the impact of information technologies on the economy. “Retrofitting all of those facilities can’t happen overnight,” he says.

One of the first Covariant-enabled robotic arms that Knapp piloted in a warehouse in Berlin, Germany.

Nonetheless, the latest automation push raises questions about the impact on jobs and workers.

Previous waves of automation have given researchers more data about what to expect. A recent study that analyzed the impact of automation at the firm level for the first time found that companies that adopted robots ahead of others in their industry became more competitive and grew more, which led them to hire more workers. “Any job loss comes from companies who did not adopt robots,” says Lynn Wu, a professor at Wharton who coauthored the paper. “They lose their competitiveness and then lay off workers.”

But as workers at Amazon and FedEx have already seen, jobs for humans will be different. Roles like packing boxes and bags will be displaced, while new ones will appear—some directly related to maintaining and supervising the robots, others from the second-order effects of fulfilling more orders, which would require expanded logistics and delivery operations. In other words, middle-skilled labor will disappear in favor of low- and high-skilled work, says Wu: “We’re breaking the career ladder, and hollowing out the middle.”

But rather than attempt to stop the trend of automation, experts say, it’s better to focus on easing the transition by helping workers reskill and creating new opportunities for career growth. “Because of aging, there are a number of countries in the world where the size of the workforce is decreasing already,” says Chui. “Half of our economic growth has come from more people working over the past 50 years, and that’s going to go away. So there’s a real imperative to increase productivity, and these technologies can help.

“We also just need to make sure that the workers can share the benefits.”

Artificial Intelligence Robotics & RPA

Talking Robot Boxes at Norwegian Hospital a Hit with Sick Kids 

By John P. Desmond, AI Trends Editor  

The “Automated Guided Vehicles” at St. Olav’s Hospital in Trondheim, Norway, have personalities. The boxes talk. 

These motorized units, essentially boxes on wheels, are assigned to transport garbage, medical equipment or food from one part of the hospital to another. But because they have to interact with humans, such as by warning them to get out of the way, they have to talk.  

But instead of using a generic Norwegian voice, the hospital robot developers decided to give them a voice that uses the strong, distinctive local dialect, according to an account in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 

And in so doing, the developers gave the stainless-steel boxes rolling around the hospital to transport goods, a personality. And they made the robots kind of pushy, a little rude. 

Children with illnesses who were being treated in the wards began to play games with them, trying to find and identify them. One parent with a gravely ill child found solace in the robots’ endless, somewhat mindless battles as they unsuccessfully ordered inanimate objects—like walls—to get out of the way. 

In a new study, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) examined how the robots came to be seen as friendly, animal-like creatures and why that matters. 

Roger A. Søraa, researcher, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

“We found that these robots, which were not created to be social robots, were actually given social qualities by the humans relating to them,” stated Roger A. Søraa, a researcher at NTNU’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture and Department of Neuromedicine and Movement Science, and first author of the new study. “We tend to anthropomorphize technologies like robots—giving them humanlike personalities—so we can put them into a context that we’re more comfortable with.” 

St. Olav’s decided in 2006 to buy 21 automated guided vehicles (AGVs) from Swisslog Healthcare, to do moving work, such as food from the cafeteria to different hospital units, or clean linens to nursing stations. St. Olav’s was the first hospital in Scandinavia to adopt the technology.  

“These are types of jobs that can often be dull, dirty, or dangerous, or what we call 3-D jobs,” Søraa stated. “These are jobs that humans don’t necessarily want to do or like to do. And those are the jobs we are seeing becoming robotized or digitalized the fastest.” 

When the talking robot encounters the talking elevator, things get interesting. The AGV is programmed to take over the elevator, politely asking humans to “please use another elevator” when it is onboard. But the elevator voices are female and speak in a very polite, standard dialect. The contrast between the polite elevators and the more burly, sometimes rude AGVs with the local dialect, is funny, Søraa observed.  

“We found that the use of the local dialect really gave the robots more of a personality,” he stated. “And people often like to give non-living things human qualities to fit them within existing social frameworks.”  

LionsBot Cleaning Robots Tell Jokes 

A Singapore-based robotics company that makes cleaning robots for commercial, industrial, and public spaces, has imbued them with a sense of humor.  

LionsBot is using AI within its LionsOS software it calls Active AI, for managing deployment, scheduling, monitoring and mapping.    

A video demonstration of the “janitorial joke droid” was recently posted to Facebook by the UK’s Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, which plans on leasing two of the LionsBot cleaners for their pediatric war in Kent, England, according to an account in The New York Post. In the clip, a cleaning bot named Ella is seen telling jokes to infirm children during a trial run.

“The Earth’s rotation really makes my day” quips the machine. In another clip, the cleaning machine Ella says to a child, “How do trees access the internet? They log on.” For added effect, the “cybernetic comic squints her blue LED eyes and wobbles her head to insinuate mirth as a playful giggle emanates from her speaker,” the Post reported. 

Sarah Gray, the Trust’s assistant general manager for facilities, said Ella “put a smile on the faces of some of our youngest patients” with her routine.  

Ella’s delivery might sound robotic, but this “riotous roomba” had social media in stitches as well. “My 7 year old laughed his head off at that joke! Great work, Ella!” wrote one fan on Facebook, the Post reported. Others compared the joke-bot to Eve, the girlfriend of the titular character from “Wall-E.”  

LionsBot Founder Explains Its Smart Robot Features

Ai Trends sent several questions to the LionsBot team. Here are responses from Dylan Ng Terntzer, CEO and Founder of LionsBot:

What is the story behind the sense of humour of the robot?

LionsBot seeks to develop smart robotics solutions that empower cleaning professionals and allowing them to focus on higher-level tasks. Given that our robots are often deployed to public spaces where foot traffic is high – such as hospitals, shopping malls, universities, hotels, and museums – the team wanted to introduce the robots in a friendly, non-threatening manner to its occupants and visitors of the location.

The inclusion of humour and personality have additional benefits, including enhancing the image of the institution where the robots are deployed, as well as offering a novel and fun way for children to learn and be inspired about technology.

Who is programming it?

LionsBot’s technology is built and developed in-house at our headquarters in Singapore. In terms of the codes, all aspects of the robots’ personalities are written within the LionsOS – the cloud operating system that serves as the backbone of every one of our robots.

Passersby can interact with a LionsBot cleaning robot by scanning its QR code, which will allow them to ask the device questions like “What is your name?” or “What type of cleaning do you perform?”. LionsBot’s robots can also sing, rap, wink and even crack jokes at the tap of a button.

Young kids can press the heart of the robot to get a random reaction from the robot. The robot will also politely ask you to move if you block it during cleaning mode. The cleaner can also trigger the personality through the app.

As the cleaning robots are operating in offices and places with higher density of people, we do not have microphones in our robots to prevent any unintended recording of private conversations. Hence, the robot will not understand what the user is saying or respond to speech. The robot instead, responds to stimulus (e.g., pressing of the heart or blocking of the crobot) or commands.

Is it part of the OS?

Yes, it is. As mentioned, all aspects of the robots’ personalities are a part of LionsOS. With our cutting-edge technology in artificial intelligence, LionsBot seeks to develop a pleasant user experience all while placing a strong emphasis on total safety, total security, and total solutions from the ground up.

Our LionsOs is much more than just personality related, but also governs how the robot reacts to its surroundings, the robots’ understanding of its location (localisation), and the robots cleaning behaviour. It is a comprehensive system which is continuously improved, making the robots clean better and work better.

Does the customer have settings to tailor the humour to the site?

Yes, LionsBot offers a comprehensive set of paid customisation options for its users – including language as well as localisation for its engagement features. LionsBot’s robots are currently available in more than 20 countries and seven languages (E.g., German, French, Polish) around the world, with the company working intimately with the customers to customise each robot to ensure that they fit in with the local community from the get-go.

For major languages, we are able to allow the user to choose male or female voice packs, and also fun or professional voices. For example, a 5-star hotel would need a professional voice as compared to a shopping mall. The robot also has a repertoire of songs and jokes.

Animatronic Columbia University Robot Mimics Human Facial Expressions 

A team at Columbia University is combining AI and advanced robotics to have a robot mimic human facial expressions. The device uses animatronics, defined as a multidisciplinary field combining puppetry, anatomy, and mechatronics, which are most often seen in theme park attractions.  

“The ability to generate intelligent and generalizable facial expressions is essential for building human-like social robots,” state the researchers on their website, according to an account in Forbes. The goal was to develop a robot that would train itself in how to react to human facial expressions. The team designed a physical animatronic robotic face with soft skin, tied to a vision-based self-supervised learning framework for mimicking human facial expressions.   

The researchers recently released a video to demonstrate the capabilities of the robot they call Eva. It uses a generative model to create a synthesized image of the face, which can then output motor actions to create the expression in the soft-skin robot face. The team is led by Boyuan Chen, a PhD student in computer science.  

Dr. Sai Balasubramanian, physician, focused on healthcare, digital innovation and policy

“This technology is potentially a massive step into the healthcare artificial intelligence and robotics space,” stated the author of the Forbes account, Dr. Sai Balasubramanian, a physician focused on the intersections of healthcare, digital innovation and policy. “If this learning algorithm can be perfected to not only mimic human emotions, but rather also respond to them appropriately, it may potentially be a novel, yet controversial, addition to the realm of healthcare innovation” he stated. 

For example, social robots have the potential to counter the detrimental effects of social isolation and loneliness, especially among the elderly, in what is called “robo therapy.” The American Psychological Association states, “Socially assistive robots could provide companionship to lonely seniors” and augment the practice of trained professionals.  

Read the source article and information in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studiesin The New York Post and in Forbes.