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The robots are coming! The robots are coming! On our sidewalks, in our skies, in our every store… Over the next decade, robots will enter the mainstream of retail.
As countless robots work behind the scenes to stock shelves, serve customers, and deliver products to our doorstep, the speed of retail will accelerate.
These changes are already underway. In this blog, we’ll elaborate on how robots are entering the retail ecosystem.
Let’s dive in.
On August 3rd, 2016, Domino’s Pizza introduced the Domino’s Robotic Unit, or “DRU” for short. The first home delivery pizza robot, the DRU looks like a cross between R2-D2 and an oversized microwave.
LIDAR and GPS sensors help it navigate, while temperature sensors keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Already, it’s been rolled out in ten countries, including New Zealand, France, and Germany, but its August 2016 debut was critical—as it was the first time we’d seen robotic home delivery.
And it won’t be the last.
A dozen or so different delivery bots are fast entering the market. Starship Technologies, for instance, a startup created by Skype founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, has a general-purpose home delivery robot. Right now, the system is an array of cameras and GPS sensors, but upcoming models will include microphones, speakers, and even the ability—via AI-driven natural language processing—to communicate with customers. Since 2016, Starship has already carried out 50,000 deliveries in over 100 cities across 20 countries.
Along similar lines, Nuro—co-founded by Jiajun Zhu, one of the engineers who helped develop Google’s self-driving car—has a miniature self-driving car of its own. Half the size of a sedan, the Nuro looks like a toaster on wheels, except with a mission. This toaster has been designed to carry cargo—about 12 bags of groceries (version 2.0 will carry 20)—which it’s been doing for select Kroger stores since 2018. Domino’s also partnered with Nuro in 2019.
As these delivery bots take to our streets, others are streaking across the sky.
Back in 2016, Amazon came first, announcing Prime Air—the e-commerce giant’s promise of drone delivery in 30 minutes or less. Almost immediately, companies ranging from 7-Eleven and Walmart to Google and Alibaba jumped on the bandwagon.
While critics remain doubtful, the head of the FAA’s drone integration department recently said that drone deliveries may be “a lot closer than […] the skeptics think. [Companies are] getting ready for full-blown operations. We’re processing their applications. I would like to move as quickly as I can.”
While delivery bots start to spare us trips to the store, those who prefer shopping the old-fashioned way—i.e., in person—also have plenty of human-robot interaction in store. In fact, these robotics solutions have been around for a while.
In 2010, SoftBank introduced Pepper, a humanoid robot capable of understanding human emotion. Pepper is cute: 4 feet tall, with a white plastic body, two black eyes, a dark slash of a mouth, and a base shaped like a mermaid’s tail. Across her chest is a touch screen to aid in communication. And there’s been a lot of communication. Pepper’s cuteness is intentional, as it matches its mission: help humans enjoy life as much as possible.
Over 12,000 Peppers have been sold. She serves ice cream in Japan, greets diners at a Pizza Hut in Singapore, and dances with customers at a Palo Alto electronics store. More importantly, Pepper’s got company.
Walmart uses shelf-stocking robots for inventory control. Best Buy uses a robo-cashier, allowing select locations to operate 24-7. And Lowe’s Home Improvement employs the LoweBot—a giant iPad on wheels—to help customers find the items they need while tracking inventory along the way.
Yet the biggest benefit robots provide might be in-warehouse logistics.
In 2012, when Amazon dished out $775 million for Kiva Systems, few could predict that just 6 years later, 45,000 Kiva robots would be deployed at all of their fulfillment centers, helping process a whopping 306 items per second during the Christmas season.
And many other retailers are following suit.
Order jeans from the Gap, and soon they’ll be sorted, packed, and shipped with the help of a Kindred robot. Remember the old arcade game where you picked up teddy bears with a giant claw? That’s Kindred, only her claw picks up T-shirts, pants, and the like, placing them in designated drop-off zones that resemble tiny mailboxes (for further sorting or shipping).
The big deal here is democratization. Kindred’s robot is cheap and easy to deploy, allowing smaller companies to compete with giants like Amazon.
For retailers interested in staying in business, there doesn’t appear to be much choice in the way of robotics.
By 2024, the US minimum wage is projected to be $15 an hour (the House of Representatives has already passed the bill, but the wage hike is meant to unfold gradually between now and 2025), and many consider that number far too low.
Yet, as human labor costs continue to climb, robots won’t just be coming, they’ll be here, there, and everywhere. It’s going to become increasingly difficult for store owners to justify human workers who call in sick, show up late, and can easily get injured. Robots work 24-7. They never take a day off, never need a bathroom break, health insurance, or parental leave.
Going forward, this spells a growing challenge of technological unemployment (a blog topic I will cover in the coming month). But in retail, robotics usher in tremendous benefits for companies and customers alike.
And while professional re-tooling initiatives and the transition of human capital from retail logistics to a booming experience economy take hold, robotic retail interaction and last-mile delivery will fundamentally transform our relationship with commerce.
This blog comes from The Future is Faster Than You Think—my upcoming book, to be released Jan 28th, 2020. To get an early copy and access up to $800 worth of pre-launch giveaways, sign up here!
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When you imagine an exoskeleton, chances are it might look a bit like the Guardian XO from Sarcos Robotics. The XO is literally a robot you wear (or maybe, it wears you). The suit’s powered limbs sense your movements and match their position to yours with little latency to give you effortless superstrength and endurance—lifting 200 pounds will feel like 10.
A vision of robots and humankind working together in harmony. Now, isn’t that nice?
Of course, there isn’t anything terribly novel about an exoskeleton. We’ve seen plenty of concepts and demonstrations in the last decade. These include light exoskeletons tailored to industrial settings—some of which are being tested out by the likes of Honda—and healthcare exoskeletons that support the elderly or folks with disabilities.
Full-body powered robotic exoskeletons are a bit rarer, which makes the Sarcos suit pretty cool to look at. But like all things in robotics, practicality matters as much as vision. It’s worth asking: Will anyone buy and use the thing? Is it more than a concept video?
Sarcos thinks so, and they’re excited about it. “If you were to ask the question, what does 30 years and $300 million look like,” Sarcos CEO, Ben Wolff, told IEEE Spectrum, “you’re going to see it downstairs.”
The XO appears to check a few key boxes. For one, it’s user friendly. According to Sarcos, it only takes a few minutes for the uninitiated to strap in and get up to speed. Feeling comfortable doing work with the suit takes a few hours. This is thanks to a high degree of sensor-based automation that allows the robot to seamlessly match its user’s movements.
The XO can also operate for more than a few minutes. It has two hours of battery life, and with spares on hand, it can go all day. The batteries are hot-swappable, meaning you can replace a drained battery with a new one without shutting the system down.
The suit is aimed at manufacturing, where workers are regularly moving heavy stuff around. Additionally, Wolff told CNET, the suit could see military use. But that doesn’t mean Avatar-style combat. The XO, Wolff said, is primarily about logistics (lifting and moving heavy loads) and isn’t designed to be armored, so it won’t likely see the front lines.
The system will set customers back $100,000 a year to rent, which sounds like a lot, but for industrial or military purposes, the six-figure rental may not deter would-be customers if the suit proves itself a useful bit of equipment. (And it’s reasonable to imagine the price coming down as the technology becomes more commonplace and competitors arrive.)
Sarcos got into exoskeletons a couple decades ago and was originally funded by the military (like many robotics endeavors). Videos hit YouTube as long ago as 2008, but after announcing the company was taking orders for the XO earlier this year, Sarcos says they’ll deliver the first alpha units in January, which is a notable milestone.
Broadly, robotics has advanced a lot in recent years. YouTube sensations like Boston Dynamics have regularly earned millions of views (and inevitably, headlines stoking robot fear). They went from tethered treadmill sessions to untethered backflips off boxes. While today’s robots really are vastly superior to their ancestors, they’ve struggled to prove themselves useful. A counterpoint to flashy YouTube videos, the DARPA Robotics Challenge gave birth to another meme altogether. Robots falling over. Often and awkwardly.
This year marks some of the first commercial fruits of a few decades’ research. Boston Dynamics recently started offering its robot dog, Spot, to select customers in 2019. Whether this proves to be a headline-worthy flash in the pan or something sustainable remains to be seen. But between robots with more autonomy and exoskeletons like the XO, the exoskeleton variety will likely be easier to make more practical for various uses.
Whereas autonomous robots require highly advanced automation to navigate uncertain and ever-changing conditions—automation which, at the moment, remains largely elusive (though the likes of Google are pairing the latest AI with robots to tackle the problem)—an exoskeleton mainly requires physical automation. The really hard bits, like navigating and recognizing and interacting with objects, are outsourced to its human operator.
As it turns out, for today’s robots the best AI is still us. We may yet get chipper automatons like Rosy the Robot, but until then, for complicated applications, we’ll strap into our mechs for their strength and endurance, and they’ll wear us for our brains.
Image Credit: Sarcos Robotics Continue reading
When mobile manipulators eventually make it into our homes, self-repair is going to be a very important function. Hopefully, these robots will be durable enough that they won’t need to be repaired very often, but from time to time they’ll almost certainly need minor maintenance. At Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, researchers from the University of Tokyo showed how they taught a PR2 to perform simple repairs on itself by tightening its own screws. And using that skill, the robot was also able to augment itself, adding accessories like hooks to help it carry more stuff. Clever robot!
To keep things simple, the researchers provided the robot with CAD data that tells it exactly where all of its screws are.
At the moment, the robot can’t directly detect on its own whether a particular screw needs tightening, although it can tell if its physical pose doesn’t match its digital model, which suggests that something has gone wonky. It can also check its screws autonomously from time to time, or rely on a human physically pointing out that it has a screw loose, using the human’s finger location to identify which screw it is. Another challenge is that most robots, like most humans, are limited in the areas on themselves that they can comfortably reach. So to tighten up everything, they might have to find themselves a robot friend to help, just like humans help each other put on sunblock.
The actual tightening is either super easy or quite complicated, depending on the location and orientation of the screw. If the robot is lucky, it can just use its continuous wrist rotation for tightening, but if a screw is located in a tight position that requires an Allen wrench, the robot has to regrasp the tool over and over as it incrementally tightens the screw.
Image: University of Tokyo
In one experiment, the researchers taught a PR2 robot to attach a hook to one of its shoulders. The robot uses one hand to grasp the hook and another hand to grasp a screwdriver. The researchers tested the hook by hanging a tote bag on it.
The other neat trick that a robot can do once it can tighten screws on its own body is to add new bits of hardware to itself. PR2 was thoughtfully designed with mounting points on its shoulders (or maybe technically its neck) and head, and it turns out that it can reach these points with its manipulators, allowing to modify itself, as the researchers explain:
When PR2 wants to have a lot of things, the only two hands are not enough to realize that. So we let PR2 to use a bag the same as we put it on our shoulder. PR2 started attaching the hook whose pose is calculated with self CAD data with a driver on his shoulder in order to put a bag on his shoulder. PR2 finished attaching the hook, and the people put a lot of cans in a tote bag and put it on PR2’s shoulder.
“Self-Repair and Self-Extension by Tightening Screws based on Precise Calculation of Screw Pose of Self-Body with CAD Data and Graph Search with Regrasping a Driver,” by Takayuki Murooka, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo, was presented at Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, Canada. Continue reading
Will getting full bars on your 5G connection mean getting caught out by sudden weather changes?
The question may strike you as hypothetical, nonsensical even, but it is at the core of ongoing disputes between meteorologists and telecommunications companies. Everyone else, including you and I, are caught in the middle, wanting both 5G’s faster connection speeds and precise information about our increasingly unpredictable weather. So why can’t we have both?
Perhaps we can, but because of the way 5G networks function, it may take some special technology—specifically, artificial intelligence.
The Bandwidth Worries
Around the world, the first 5G networks are already being rolled out. The networks use a variety of frequencies to transmit data to and from devices at speeds up to 100 times faster than existing 4G networks.
One of the bandwidths used is between 24.25 and 24.45 gigahertz (GHz). In a recent FCC auction, telecommunications companies paid a combined $2 billion for the 5G usage rights for this spectrum in the US.
However, meteorologists are concerned that transmissions near the lower end of that range can interfere with their ability to accurately measure water vapor in the atmosphere. Wired reported that acting chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Neil Jacobs, told the US House Subcommittee on the Environment that 5G interference could substantially cut the amount of weather data satellites can gather. As a result, forecast accuracy could drop by as much as 30 percent.
Among the consequences could be less time to prepare for hurricanes, and it may become harder to predict storms’ paths. Due to the interconnectedness of weather patterns, measurement issues in one location can affect other areas too. Lack of accurate atmospheric data from the US could, for example, lead to less accurate forecasts for weather patterns over Europe.
The Numbers Game
Water vapor emits a faint signal at 23.8 GHz. Weather satellites measure the signals, and the data is used to gauge atmospheric humidity levels. Meteorologists have expressed concern that 5G signals in the same range can disturb those readings. The issue is that it would be nigh on impossible to tell whether a signal is water vapor or an errant 5G signal.
Furthermore, 5G disturbances in other frequency bands could make forecasting even more difficult. Rain and snow emit frequencies around 36-37 GHz. 50.2-50.4 GHz is used to measure atmospheric temperatures, and 86-92 GHz clouds and ice. All of the above are under consideration for international 5G signals. Some have warned that the wider consequences could set weather forecasts back to the 1980s.
Telecommunications companies and interest organizations have argued back, saying that weather sensors aren’t as susceptible to interference as meteorologists fear. Furthermore, 5G devices and signals will produce much less interference with weather forecasts than organizations like NOAA predict. Since very little scientific research has been carried out to examine the claims of either party, we seem stuck in a ‘wait and see’ situation.
To offset some of the possible effects, the two groups have tried to reach a consensus on a noise buffer between the 5G transmissions and water-vapor signals. It could be likened to limiting the noise from busy roads or loud sound systems to avoid bothering neighboring buildings.
The World Meteorological Organization was looking to establish a -55 decibel watts buffer. In Europe, regulators are locked in on a -42 decibel watts buffer for 5G base stations. For comparison, the US Federal Communications Commission has advocated for a -20 decibel watts buffer, which would, in reality, allow more than 150 times more noise than the European proposal.
How AI Could Help
Much of the conversation about 5G’s possible influence on future weather predictions is centered around mobile phones. However, the phones are far from the only systems that will be receiving and transmitting signals on 5G. Self-driving cars and the Internet of Things are two other technologies that could soon be heavily reliant on faster wireless signals.
Densely populated areas are likely going to be the biggest emitters of 5G signals, leading to a suggestion to only gather water-vapor data over oceans.
Another option is to develop artificial intelligence (AI) approaches to clean or process weather data. AI is playing an increasing role in weather forecasting. For example, in 2016 IBM bought The Weather Company for $2 billion. The goal was to combine the two companies’ models and data in IBM’s Watson to create more accurate forecasts. AI would also be able to predict increases or drops in business revenues due to weather changes. Monsanto has also been investing in AI for forecasting, in this case to provide agriculturally-related weather predictions.
Smartphones may also provide a piece of the weather forecasting puzzle. Studies have shown how data from thousands of smartphones can help to increase the accuracy of storm predictions, as well as the force of storms.
“Weather stations cost a lot of money,” Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Inside Science, adding, “If there are already 20 million smartphones, you might as well take advantage of the observation system that’s already in place.”
Smartphones may not be the solution when it comes to finding new ways of gathering the atmospheric data on water vapor that 5G could disrupt. But it does go to show that some technologies open new doors, while at the same time, others shut them.
Image Credit: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay Continue reading