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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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The list of things robots can do seems to be growing by the week. They can play sports, help us explore outer space and the deep sea, take over some of our boring everyday tasks, and even assemble Ikea furniture.
Now they can add one more accomplishment to the list: grilling and serving a hot dog.
It seems like a pretty straightforward task, and as far as grilling goes, hot dogs are about as easy as it gets (along with, maybe, burgers? Hot dogs require more rotation, but it’s easier to tell when they’re done since they’re lighter in color).
Let’s paint a picture: you’re manning the grill at your family’s annual Fourth of July celebration. You’ve got a 10-pack of plump, juicy beef franks and a hungry crowd of relatives whose food-to-alcohol ratio is getting pretty skewed—they need some solid calories, pronto. What are the steps you need to take to get those franks from package to plate?
Each one needs to be placed on the grill, rotated every couple minutes for even cooking, removed from the grill when you deem it’s done, then—if you’re the kind of guy or gal who goes the extra mile—placed in a bun and dressed with ketchup, mustard, pickles, and the like before being handed over to salivating, too-loud Uncle Hector or sweet, bored Cousin Margaret.
While carrying out your grillmaster duties, you know better than to drop the hot dogs on the ground, leave them cooking on one side for too long, squeeze them to the point of breaking or bursting, and any other hot-dog-ruining amateur moves.
But for a robot, that’s a lot to figure out, especially if they have no prior knowledge of grilling hot dogs (which, well, most robots don’t).
As described in a paper published in this week’s Science Robotics, a team from Boston University programmed two robotic arms to use reinforcement learning—a branch of machine learning in which software gathers information about its environment then learns from it by replaying its experiences and incorporating rewards—to cook and serve hot dogs.
The team used a set of formulas to specify and combine tasks (“pick up hot dog and place on the grill”), meet safety requirements (“always avoid collisions”), and incorporate general prior knowledge (“you cannot pick up another hot dog if you are already holding one”).
Baxter and Jaco—as the two robots were dubbed—were trained through computer simulations. The paper’s authors emphasized their use of what they call a “formal specification language” for training the software, with the aim of generating easily-interpretable task descriptions. In reinforcement learning, they explain, being able to understand how a reward function influences an AI’s learning process is a key component in understanding the system’s behavior—but most systems lack this quality, and are thus likely to be lumped into the ‘black box’ of AI.
The robots’ decisions throughout the hot dog prep process—when to turn a hot dog, when to take it off the grill, and so on—are, the authors write, “easily interpretable from the beginning because the language is very similar to plain English.”
Besides being a step towards more explainable AI systems, Baxter and Jaco are another example of fast-food robots—following in the footsteps of their burger and pizza counterparts—that may take over some repetitive manual tasks currently performed by human workers. As robots’ capabilities improve through incremental progress like this, they’ll be able to take on additional tasks.
In a not-so-distant future, then, you just may find yourself throwing back drinks with Uncle Hector and Cousin Margaret while your robotic replacement mans the grill, churning out hot dogs that are perfectly cooked every time.
Image Credit: Image by Muhammad Ribkhan from Pixabay Continue reading