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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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Image Credit: Image by imjanuary from Pixabay Continue reading
Have you ever encountered a lifelike humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated face that seem a bit off or unsettling, though you can’t quite explain why?
Take for instance AVA, one of the “digital humans” created by New Zealand tech startup Soul Machines as an on-screen avatar for Autodesk. Watching a lifelike digital being such as AVA can be both fascinating and disconcerting. AVA expresses empathy through her demeanor and movements: slightly raised brows, a tilt of the head, a nod.
By meticulously rendering every lash and line in its avatars, Soul Machines aimed to create a digital human that is virtually undistinguishable from a real one. But to many, rather than looking natural, AVA actually looks creepy. There’s something about it being almost human but not quite that can make people uneasy.
Like AVA, many other ultra-realistic avatars, androids, and animated characters appear stuck in a disturbing in-between world: They are so lifelike and yet they are not “right.” This void of strangeness is known as the uncanny valley.
Uncanny Valley: Definition and History
The uncanny valley is a concept first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, then a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The term describes Mori’s observation that as robots appear more humanlike, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease, and a tendency to be scared or freaked out.
Image: Masahiro Mori
The uncanny valley as depicted in Masahiro Mori’s original graph: As a robot’s human likeness [horizontal axis] increases, our affinity towards the robot [vertical axis] increases too, but only up to a certain point. For some lifelike robots, our response to them plunges, and they appear repulsive or creepy. That’s the uncanny valley.
In his seminal essay for Japanese journal Energy, Mori wrote:
I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.
Later in the essay, Mori describes the uncanny valley by using an example—the first prosthetic hands:
One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.
In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Mori explained how he came up with the idea for the uncanny valley:
“Since I was a child, I have never liked looking at wax figures. They looked somewhat creepy to me. At that time, electronic prosthetic hands were being developed, and they triggered in me the same kind of sensation. These experiences had made me start thinking about robots in general, which led me to write that essay. The uncanny valley was my intuition. It was one of my ideas.”
Uncanny Valley Examples
To better illustrate how the uncanny valley works, here are some examples of the phenomenon. Prepare to be freaked out.
Photo: Hiroshi Ishiguro/Osaka University/ATR
Taking the top spot in the “creepiest” rankings of IEEE Spectrum’s Robots Guide, Telenoid is a robotic communication device designed by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. Its bald head, lifeless face, and lack of limbs make it seem more alien than human.
Photo: Andrew Oh/Javier Movellan/Calit2
Engineers and roboticists at the University of California San Diego’s Machine Perception Lab developed this robot baby to help parents better communicate with their infants. At 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds), Diego-san is a big baby—bigger than an average 1-year-old child.
“Even though the facial expression is sophisticated and intuitive in this infant robot, I still perceive a false smile when I’m expecting the baby to appear happy,” says Angela Tinwell, a senior lecturer at the University of Bolton in the U.K. and author of The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation. “This, along with a lack of detail in the eyes and forehead, can make the baby appear vacant and creepy, so I would want to avoid those ‘dead eyes’ rather than interacting with Diego-san.”
3. Geminoid HI
Photo: Osaka University/ATR/Kokoro
Another one of Ishiguro’s creations, Geminoid HI is his android replica. He even took hair from his own scalp to put onto his robot twin. Ishiguro says he created Geminoid HI to better understand what it means to be human.
Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Getty Images
Designed by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia is one of the most famous humanoid robots. Like Soul Machines’ AVA, Sophia displays a range of emotional expressions and is equipped with natural language processing capabilities.
5. Anthropomorphized felines
The uncanny valley doesn’t only happen with robots that adopt a human form. The 2019 live-action versions of the animated film The Lion King and the musical Cats brought the uncanny valley to the forefront of pop culture. To some fans, the photorealistic computer animations of talking lions and singing cats that mimic human movements were just creepy.
Are you feeling that eerie sensation yet?
Uncanny Valley: Science or Pseudoscience?
Despite our continued fascination with the uncanny valley, its validity as a scientific concept is highly debated. The uncanny valley wasn’t actually proposed as a scientific concept, yet has often been criticized in that light.
Mori himself said in his IEEE Spectrum interview that he didn’t explore the concept from a rigorous scientific perspective but as more of a guideline for robot designers:
Pointing out the existence of the uncanny valley was more of a piece of advice from me to people who design robots rather than a scientific statement.
Karl MacDorman, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University who has long studied the uncanny valley, interprets the classic graph not as expressing Mori’s theory but as a heuristic for learning the concept and organizing observations.
“I believe his theory is instead expressed by his examples, which show that a mismatch in the human likeness of appearance and touch or appearance and motion can elicit a feeling of eeriness,” MacDorman says. “In my own experiments, I have consistently reproduced this effect within and across sense modalities. For example, a mismatch in the human realism of the features of a face heightens eeriness; a robot with a human voice or a human with a robotic voice is eerie.”
How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley
Unless you intend to create creepy characters or evoke a feeling of unease, you can follow certain design principles to avoid the uncanny valley. “The effect can be reduced by not creating robots or computer-animated characters that combine features on different sides of a boundary—for example, human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, or real and artificial,” MacDorman says.
To make a robot or avatar more realistic and move it beyond the valley, Tinwell says to ensure that a character’s facial expressions match its emotive tones of speech, and that its body movements are responsive and reflect its hypothetical emotional state. Special attention must also be paid to facial elements such as the forehead, eyes, and mouth, which depict the complexities of emotion and thought. “The mouth must be modeled and animated correctly so the character doesn’t appear aggressive or portray a ‘false smile’ when they should be genuinely happy,” she says.
For Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the goal is not to avoid the uncanny valley, but to avoid bad character animations or behaviors, stressing the importance of matching the appearance of a robot with its ability. “We’re trained to spot even the slightest divergence from ‘normal’ human movements or behavior,” he says. “Hence, we often fail in creating highly realistic, humanlike characters.”
But he warns that the uncanny valley appears to be more of an uncanny cliff. “We find the likability to increase and then crash once robots become humanlike,” he says. “But we have never observed them ever coming out of the valley. You fall off and that’s it.” Continue reading
There’s no particular reason why knowing how to juggle would be a useful skill for a robot. Despite this, robots are frequently taught how to juggle things. Blind robots can juggle, humanoid robots can juggle, and even drones can juggle. Why? Because juggling is hard, man! You have to think about a bunch of different things at once, and also do a bunch of different things at once, which this particular human at least finds to be overly stressful. While juggling may not stress robots out, it does require carefully coordinated sensing and computing and actuation, which means that it’s as good a task as any (and a more entertaining task than most) for testing the capabilities of your system.
UC Berkeley’s Cassie Cal robot, which consists of two legs and what could be called a torso if you were feeling charitable, has just learned to juggle by bouncing a ball on what would be her head if she had one of those. The idea is that if Cassie can juggle while balancing at the same time, she’ll be better able to do other things that require dynamic multitasking, too. And if that doesn’t work out, she’ll still be able to join the circus.
Cassie’s juggling is assisted by an external motion capture system that tracks the location of the ball, but otherwise everything is autonomous. Cassie is able to juggle the ball by leaning forwards and backwards, left and right, and moving up and down. She does this while maintaining her own balance, which is the whole point of this research—successfully executing two dynamic behaviors that may sometimes be at odds with one another. The end goal here is not to make a better juggling robot, but rather to explore dynamic multitasking, a skill that robots will need in order to be successful in human environments.
This work is from the Hybrid Robotics Lab at UC Berkeley, led by Koushil Sreenath, and is being done by Katherine Poggensee, Albert Li, Daniel Sotsaikich, Bike Zhang, and Prasanth Kotaru.
For a bit more detail, we spoke with Albert Li via email.
Image: UC Berkeley
UC Berkeley’s Cassie Cal getting ready to juggle.
IEEE Spectrum: What would be involved in getting Cassie to juggle without relying on motion capture?
Albert Li: Our motivation for starting off with motion capture was to first address the control challenge of juggling on a biped without worrying about implementing the perception. We actually do have a ball detector working on a camera, which would mean we wouldn’t have to rely on the motion capture system. However, we need to mount the camera in a way that it would provide the best upwards field of view, and we also have develop a reliable estimator. The estimator is particularly important because when the ball gets close enough to the camera, we actually can’t track the ball and have to assume our dynamic models describe its motion accurately enough until it bounces back up.
What keeps Cassie from juggling indefinitely?
There are a few factors that affect how long Cassie can sustain a juggle. While in simulation the paddle exhibits homogeneous properties like its stiffness and damping, in reality every surface has anisotropic contact properties. So, there are parts of the paddle which may be better for juggling than others (and importantly, react differently than modeled). These differences in contact are also exacerbated due to how the paddle is cantilevered when mounted on Cassie. When the ball hits these areas, it leads to a larger than expected error in a juggle. Due to the small size of the paddle, the ball may then just hit the paddle’s edge and end the juggling run. Over a very long run, this is a likely occurrence. Additionally, some large juggling errors could cause Cassie’s feet to slip slightly, which ends up changing the stable standing position over time. Since this version of the controller assumes Cassie is stationary, this change in position eventually leads to poor juggles and failure.
Would Cassie be able to juggle while walking (or hovershoe-ing)?
Walking (and hovershoe-ing) while juggling is a far more challenging problem and is certainly a goal for future research. Some of these challenges include getting the paddle to precise poses to juggle the ball while also moving to avoid any destabilizing effects of stepping incorrectly. The number of juggles per step of walking could also vary and make the mathematics of the problem more challenging. The controller goal is also more involved. While the current goal of the juggling controller is to juggle the ball to a static apex position, with a walking juggling controller, we may instead want to hit the ball forwards and also walk forwards to bounce it, juggle the ball along a particular path, etc. Solving such challenges would be the main thrusts of the follow-up research.
Can you give an example of a practical task that would be made possible by using a controller like this?
Studying juggling means studying contact behavior and leveraging our models of it to achieve a known objective. Juggling could also be used to study predictable post-contact flight behavior. Consider the scenario where a robot is attempting to make a catch, but fails, letting the ball to bounce off of its hand, and then recovering the catch. This behavior could also be intentional: It is often easier to first execute a bounce to direct the target and then perform a subsequent action. For example, volleyball players could in principle directly hit a spiked ball back, but almost always bump the ball back up and then return it.
Even beyond this motivating example, the kinds of models we employ to get juggling working are more generally applicable to any task that involves contact, which could include tasks besides bouncing like sliding and rolling. For example, clearing space on a desk by pushing objects to the side may be preferable than individually manipulating each and every object on it.
You mention collaborative juggling or juggling multiple balls—is that something you’ve tried yet? Can you talk a bit more about what you’re working on next?
We haven’t yet started working on collaborative or multi-ball juggling, but that’s also a goal for future work. Juggling multiple balls statically is probably the most reasonable next goal, but presents additional challenges. For instance, you have to encode a notion of juggling urgency (if the second ball isn’t hit hard enough, you have less time to get the first ball up before you get back to the second one).
On the other hand, collaborative human-robot juggling requires a more advanced decision-making framework. To get robust multi-agent juggling, the robot will need to employ some sort of probabilistic model of the expected human behavior (are they likely to move somewhere? Are they trying to catch the ball high or low? Is it safe to hit the ball back?). In general, developing such human models is difficult since humans are fairly unpredictable and often don’t exhibit rational behavior. This will be a focus of future work.
[ Hybrid Robotics Lab ] Continue reading