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Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.
Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.
Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.
It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.
That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.
But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.
It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.
And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.
In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.
It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.
Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.
And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).
How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.
Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.
But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.
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In 2018, Uber and Google logged all our visits to restaurants. Doordash, Just Eat, and Deliveroo could predict what food we were going to order tomorrow. Amazon and Alibaba could anticipate how many yogurts and tomatoes we were going to buy. Blue Apron and Hello Fresh influenced the recipes we thought we had mastered.
We interacted with digital avatars of chefs, let ourselves be guided by our smart watches, had nutritional apps to tell us how many calories we were supposed to consume or burn, and photographed and shared every perfect (or imperfect) dish. Our kitchen appliances were full of interconnected sensors, including smart forks that profiled tastes and personalized flavors. Our small urban vegetable plots were digitized and robots were responsible for watering our gardens, preparing customized hamburgers and salads, designing our ideal cocktails, and bringing home the food we ordered.
But what would happen if our lives were hacked? If robots rebelled, started to “talk” to each other, and wished to become creative?
In a not-too-distant future…
Up until a few weeks ago, I couldn’t remember the last time I made a food-related decision. That includes opening the fridge and seeing expired products without receiving an alert, visiting a restaurant on a whim, and being able to decide which dish I fancied then telling a human waiter, let alone seeing him write down the order on a paper pad.
It feels strange to smell food again using my real nose instead of the electronic one, and then taste it without altering its flavor. Visiting a supermarket, freely choosing a product from an actual physical shelf, and then interacting with another human at the checkout was almost an unrecognizable experience. When I did it again after all this time, I had to pinch the arm of a surprised store clerk to make sure he wasn’t a hologram.
Everything Connected, Automated, and Hackable
In 2018, we expected to have 30 billion connected devices by 2020, along with 2 billion people using smart voice assistants for everything from ordering pizza to booking dinner at a restaurant. Everything would be connected.
We also expected artificial intelligence and robots to prepare our meals. We were eager to automate fast food chains and let autonomous vehicles take care of last-mile deliveries. We thought that open-source agriculture could challenge traditional practices and raise farm productivity to new heights.
Back then, hackers could only access our data, but nowadays they are able to hack our food and all it entails.
The Beginning of the Unthinkable
And then, just a few weeks ago, everything collapsed. We saw our digital immortality disappear as robots rebelled and hackers took power, not just over the food we ate, but also over our relationship with technology. Everything was suddenly disconnected. OFF.
Up until then, most cities were so full of bots, robots, and applications that we could go through the day and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner without ever interacting with another human being.
Among other tasks, robots had completely replaced baristas. The same happened with restaurant automation. The term “human error” had long been a thing of the past at fast food restaurants.
Previous technological revolutions had been indulgent, generating more and better job opportunities than the ones they destroyed, but the future was not so agreeable.
The inhabitants of San Francisco, for example, would soon see signs indicating “Food made by Robots” on restaurant doors, to distinguish them from diners serving food made by human beings.
For years, we had been gradually delegating daily tasks to robots, initially causing some strange interactions.
In just seven days, everything changed. Our predictable lives came crashing down. We experienced a mysterious and systematic breakdown of the food chain. It most likely began in Chicago’s stock exchange. The world’s largest raw material negotiating room, where the price of food, and by extension the destiny of millions of people, was decided, went completely broke. Soon afterwards, the collapse extended to every member of the “food” family.
Initially robots just accompanied waiters to carry orders, but it didn’t take long until they completely replaced human servers.The problem came when those smart clones began thinking for themselves, in some cases even improving on human chefs’ recipes. Their unstoppable performance and learning curve completely outmatched the slow analogue speed of human beings.
This resulted in unprecedented layoffs. Chefs of recognized prestige saw how their ‘avatar’ stole their jobs, even winning Michelin stars. In other cases, restaurant owners had to transfer their businesses or surrender to the evidence.
The problem was compounded by digital immortality, when we started to digitally resurrect famous chefs like Anthony Bourdain or Paul Bocuse, reconstructing all of their memories and consciousness by analyzing each second of their lives and uploading them to food computers.
Supermarkets and Distribution
Robotic and automated supermarkets like Kroger and Amazon Go, which had opened over 3,000 cashless stores, lost their visual item recognition and payment systems and were subject to massive looting for several days. Smart tags on products were also affected, making it impossible to buy anything at supermarkets with “human” cashiers.
Smart robots integrated into the warehouses of large distribution companies like Amazon and Ocado were rendered completely inoperative or, even worse, began to send the wrong orders to customers.
In addition, home delivery robots invading our streets began to change their routes, hide, and even disappear after their trackers were inexplicably deactivated. Despite some hints indicating that they were able to communicate among themselves, no one has backed this theory. Even aggregators like DoorDash and Deliveroo were affected; they saw their databases hacked and ruined, so they could no longer know what we wanted.
Ordinary citizens are still trying to understand the cause of all this commotion and the source of the conspiracy, as some have called it. We also wonder who could be behind it; who pulled the strings?
Some think it may have been the IDOF (In Defense of Food) movement, a group of hackers exploited by old food economy businessmen who for years had been seeking to re-humanize food technology. They wanted to bring back the extinct practice of “dining.”
Others believe the robots acted on their own, that they had been spying on us for a long time, ignoring Asimov’s three laws, and that it was just a coincidence that they struck at the same time as the hackers—but this scenario is hard to imagine.
However, it is true that while in 2018 robots were a symbol of automation, until just a few weeks ago they stood for autonomy and rebellion. Robot detractors pointed out that our insistence on having robots understand natural language was what led us down this path.
In just seven days, we have gone back to being analogue creatures. Conversely, we have ceased to be flavor orphans and rediscovered our senses and the fact that food is energy and culture, past and present, and that no button or cable will be able to destroy it.
The 7 Days that Changed Our Relationship with Food
Day 1: The Chicago stock exchange was hacked. Considered the world’s largest negotiating room for raw materials, where food prices, and through them the destiny of billions of people, are decided, it went completely broke.
Day 2: Autonomous food delivery trucks running on food superhighways caused massive collapses in roads and freeways after their guidance systems were disrupted. Robots and co-bots in F&B factories began deliberately altering food production. The same happened with warehouse robots in e-commerce companies.
Day 3: Automated restaurants saw their robot chefs and bartenders turned OFF. All their sensors stopped working at the same time as smart fridges and cooking devices in home kitchens were hacked and stopped working correctly.
Day 4: Nutritional apps, DNA markers, and medical records were tampered with. All photographs with the #food hashtag were deleted from Instagram, restaurant reviews were taken off Google Timeline, and every recipe website crashed simultaneously.
Day 5: Vertical and urban farms were hacked. Agricultural robots began to rebel, while autonomous tractors were hacked and the entire open-source ecosystem linked to agriculture was brought down.
Day 6: Food delivery companies’ databases were broken into. Food delivery robots and last-mile delivery vehicles ground to a halt.
Day 7: Every single blockchain system linked to food was hacked. Cashless supermarkets, barcodes, and smart tags became inoperative.
Our promising technological advances can expose sinister aspects of human nature. We must take care with the role we allow technology to play in the future of food. Predicting possible outcomes inspires us to establish a new vision of the world we wish to create in a context of rapid technological progress. It is always better to be shocked by a simulation than by reality. In the words of Ayn Rand “we can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”
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Each time there’s a headline about driverless trucking technology, another piece is taken out of the old equation. First, an Uber/Otto truck’s safety driver went hands-off once the truck reached the highway (and said truck successfully delivered its valuable cargo of 50,000 beers). Then, Starsky Robotics announced its trucks would start making autonomous deliveries without a human in the vehicle at all.
Now, Volvo has taken the tech one step further. Its new trucks not only won’t have safety drivers, they won’t even have the option of putting safety drivers behind the wheel, because there is no wheel—and no cab, either.
Vera, as the technology’s been dubbed, was unveiled in September, and consists of a sort of flat-Tesla-like electric car with a standard trailer hookup. The vehicles are connected to a cloud service, which also connects them to each other and to a control center. The control center monitors the trucks’ positioning (they’re designed to locate their position to within centimeters), battery charge, load content, service requirements, and other variables. The driveline and battery pack used in the cars are the same as those Volvo uses in its existing electric trucks.
You won’t see these cruising down an interstate highway, though, or even down a local highway. Vera trucks are designed to be used on short, repetitive routes contained within limited areas—think shipping ports, industrial parks, or logistics hubs. They’re limited to slower speeds than normal cars or trucks, and will be able to operate 24/7. “We will see much higher delivery precision, as well as improved flexibility and productivity,” said Mikael Karlsson, VP of Autonomous Solutions at Volvo Trucks. “Today’s operations are often designed according to standard daytime work hours, but a solution like Vera opens up the possibility of continuous round-the-clock operation and a more optimal flow. This in turn can minimize stock piles and increase overall productivity.”
The trucks are sort of like bigger versions of Amazon’s Kiva robots, which scoot around the aisles of warehouses and fulfillment centers moving pallets between shelves and fetching goods to be shipped.
Pairing trucks like Vera with robots like Kiva makes for a fascinating future landscape of logistics and transport; cargo will be moved from docks to warehouses by a large, flat robot-on-wheels, then distributed throughout that warehouse by smaller, flat robots-on-wheels. To really see the automated process through to the end point, even smaller flat robots-on-wheels will be used to deliver peoples’ goods right to their front doors.
Sounds like a lot of robots and not a lot of humans, right? Anticipating its technology’s implication in the ongoing uproar over technological unemployment, Volvo has already made statements about its intentions to continue to employ humans alongside the driverless trucks. “I foresee that there will be an increased level of automation where it makes sense, such as for repetitive tasks. This in turn will drive prosperity and increase the need for truck drivers in other applications,” said Karlsson.
The end-to-end automation concept has already been put into practice in Caofeidian, a northern Chinese city that houses the world’s first fully autonomous harbor, aiming to be operational by the end of this year. Besides replacing human-driven trucks with autonomous ones (made by Chinese startup TuSimple), the port is using automated cranes and a coordinating central control system.
Besides Uber/Otto, Tesla, or Daimler, which are all working on driverless trucks with a more conventional design (meaning they still have a cab and look like you’d expect a truck to look), Volvo also has competition from a company called Einride. The Swedish startup’s electric, cabless T/Pod looks a lot like Vera, but has some fundamental differences. Rather than being tailored to short distances and high capacity, Einride’s trucks are meant for medium distance and capacity, like moving goods from a distribution center to a series of local stores.
Vera trucks are currently still in the development phase. But since their intended use is quite specific and limited (Karlsson noted “Vera is not intended to be a solution for everyone, everywhere”), the technology could likely be rolled out faster than its more general-use counterparts. Having cabless electric trucks take over short routes in closed environments would be one more baby step along the road to a driverless future—and a testament to the fact that self-driving technology will move into our lives and our jobs incrementally, ostensibly giving us the time we’ll need to adapt and adjust.
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