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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ennis

Eye on AI - August 13th, 2021

Welcome to Aigora's "Eye on AI" series, where we round up exciting news at the intersection of consumer science and artificial intelligence!


It’s the robot invasion! This week, we'll be looking at the rise of robotics during the pandemic, from new robot armies that can pack and ship consumer goods as well as any human to AI-powered robots filling jobs for the understaffed service industry.


New Generation of AI-Powered Robots Is Filling Our Warehouses

In 2012, when Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, a Massachusetts-based robotics company, and began testing newly developed AI-powered robots at its fulfillment centers, it felt like the news hardly caught the public’s attention. Google Glass had just failed spectacularly. AI was still relatively new to most people outside Silicon Valley. The idea of robots packing and shipping goods felt like another big-tech pipe-dream. And it was for the most part. Amazon’s early AI-powered robots couldn’t pack anything. They moved objects from point A to point B, hardly anything exciting (or affordable) for any companies outside the largest retailers. That was before the pandemic.

After COVID-19, brick and mortar stores shuttered and eCommerce sales skyrocketed, leaving retailers facing new logistical challenges to fulfill mounting online orders without the human workforce they needed. And, according to the MIT Tech article “A new generation of AI-powered robots is taking over warehouses,” in the months before the pandemic, a new kind of robot had finished being developed, one capable of handling objects similar to humans.

“Built on years of breakthroughs in deep learning, [these new robots] could pick up all kinds of objects with remarkable accuracy, making it a shoo-in for jobs like sorting products into packages at warehouses,” writes MIT Tech Review contributor Karen Hao. “... 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.”

While the interest in these robots during the pandemic has grown, there are still only around 2,000 of them deployed. Clients average around two per warehouse. Rian Whitton, who analyzes the industrial robotics market at ABI Research, thinks that number will grow to around 10 within the next few years, which will increase that deployment number by tens of thousands.

“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,” continues Hao. “Within a few years, any task that previously required hands to perform could be partially or fully automated away.”

That doesn’t mean robots will replace all human warehouse workers. A recent study that analyzed the impact of automation at the firm level found that companies that adopted robots became more competitive, grew more, and had to hire more workers. Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute who studies the impact of information technologies on the economy, believes there are too many warehouses to retrofit with robotics. But warehouse jobs for humans are changing. Middle-skilled labor is disappearing in favor of low- and high-skilled work, which means the human warehousing workforce will need to evolve if it hopes to remain relevant. It will be up to the companies implementing robotics to train their workers effectively.

Robots Help Fill Worker Void for the Service Industry

In related news, according to the Wall Street Journal article “Amid the Labor Shortage, Robots Step in to Make the French Fries,” robots are filling vacant service industry jobs that employers have been struggling to fill during the pandemic.

“What’s happening now is different [than before the pandemic], says Michael Schaefer, lead analyst of food and beverage developments at Euromonitor, a consumer-trends analysis firm. In the pandemic era, the combination of scarce labor, an unprecedented increase in demand for takeout and delivery, and the minimal margins that delivery allows are compelling restaurateurs to look at technology they might have shied away from before.”

We discussed a bit about how the restaurant industry was evolving before the pandemic. Self-serve kiosks were already a thing. Ghost kitchens, where robots made the food, were emerging. And of course, there were the smart pizza cooking machines deployed on college campuses. The pandemic seems to have accelerated the adoption of kitchen robots, with companies like McDonald's and others positioning themselves to go fully automated within the next few years. It’s truly the invasion of the robots.

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