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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ennis

Eye on AI - January 31st, 2020

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


This week’s “Eye on AI” looks at the rise of robotics in repetitive human tasks. Technology has always been a net creator of jobs and the current wave of technology will likely be no different in the end. But that doesn’t necessarily make the transitions any easier for those affected. This week, as you read along, try and think about how robotics might impact your life and the lives of those around you. The net effect will likely be positive, but it could take a bumpy ride to get there. Since it’s good to stay informed, let’s get started!

The Dawn of the AI-Powered Warehouse Robot Revolution

We begin with a big article on warehouse news out of MIT Technical Review, titled In “AI-powered robot warehouse pickers are now ready to go to work”, in which reporter Karen Haou describes how Covariant, an AI startup, recently came out of stealth mode to reveal its AI-platform is being used by Knapp, a major warehousing and logistics company. The reason for the deal, according to Knapp, is that Covariant’s AI-software is more reliable than any other.

“Knapp’s Puchwein says that since the company adopted Covariant’s platform, its robots have gone from being able to pick between 10% and 15% to around 95% of Obeta’s product range,” writes Haou. “The last 5% consists of particularly fragile items like glasses, which are still reserved for careful handling by humans…. ‘We've never seen this quality of AI before,’ says Peter Puchwein, vice president of innovation at Knapp.”

Covariant’s software platform, called Covariant Brain, is hardware agnostic, meaning it can be used with a variety of robot models. At the Covariant office, for example, there are over a dozen robots of varying models working away.

“Over the course of an hour, I watched three different robots masterfully pick up all manner of store-bought items,” continues Haou. “In seconds, the algorithm analyzes their positions, calculates the attack angle and correct sequence of motions, and extends the arm to grab on with a suction cup. It moves with certainty and precision, and changes its speed depending on the delicateness of the item.”

Inside client warehouses, Knapp uses the Corarian Brain software in the same way with its hardware. While Corarian hopes to soon be used in all areas of warehouse fulfillment, it also envisions its technology expanding beyond warehouses and into our everyday lives.

Kroger Expands AI-Driven Warehouses, & Other Robotics-Driven Expansion

Corarian didn’t have the only big AI-powered warehouse announcement this week. Kroger also announced its plans to open up a new AI- automated online grocery facility warehouse in Frederick, Maryland in partnership with the United-Kingdom-based Ocado. Kroger’s AI-powered warehouse in Frederick, which they’re calling a consumer fulfillment center (CFC), marks the fourth CFC Kroger has announced in partnership with Ocado, which it hopes will be completed by 2022. Supermarket News reporter Russell Redman explains:

“Ocado CFCs use digital and robotic technology to service e-grocery orders,” writes Redman. “When unveiling their partnership in May 2018, Kroger and United Kingdom-based Ocado said they plan to open 20s CFCs in the United States over the next three years…. As with the other CFCs, the Frederick facility is expected to provide up to 400 jobs when it’s completed, with another 100 jobs to be added later on as the warehouse’s service area expands, Kroger and Ocado said.”

While Kroger’s CFCs may be job-producing ventures , a trio of new consumer robotics announcements this week may prove to be just the opposite, including a SF-based robot making plant-based burgers, a smoothie-making robot, and a froth-less beer-pouring robot bartender. While these robots are impressive, it’s easy to see how they, along with warehouse-based robots, might replace large portions of the blue collar workforce at companies with big checkbooks (think chain restaurants / retail giants). Unfortunately for blue collar workers, it always seems as if they’re the most threatened by new AI technologies. My hope is that this will all play out in their favor. As of right now, doubts remain whether or not this will be the case. Watch this space.

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