Robots ‘r us

Developments in robotics dominate tech news this week

By Laura Haight

Are you ready for the robot revolution?

Not sure? Well, grab your servo gloves and your AR headset and get ready to rock your world.

It’s been 68 years since Isaac Asimov penned the three rules of robotics designed to protect humans from our AI helpers. And we are finally close to living his dream.. Or is it his nightmare?

Here’s just a small selection of news from the world of robotic development in industry and consumer products that appeared in tech publications this week.

Strawberry Fields

Immigrants and migrant workers are often accused of taking away American jobs, but what many growers know is that they can’t get enough American workers to do the hard, hands-on labor of picking fruits and vegetables from California lettuce to Florida strawberries. Fearing the dual problem of an aging workforce and the expected end of many migrant work visas, growers turned to technology.

Wise Farms in Florida has 600 acres of strawberries to be picked. Strawberry picking is not an easy task. New strawberries ripen on the vine every three days in the growing season. Pickers must be able to identify the ripe ones, pluck them off without damaging or bruising the fruit, while leaving the plant unmarred. It requires dexterity, speed, judgment, consistency and experience. Young pickers are not coming up to take the place of their parents in the fields, leaving farms like Wise facing a massive manpower problem.

For five years, Harvest CROO Robotics has been working side-by-side with human pickers. Now, using artificial intelligence fed by digital photography, Harvest has a robot picker that can “look” at a strawberry plant and correctly identify and properly pluck the ripe berries. Once it’s ready for prime time, one harvester will be able to cover as much ground as 30 workers.

It’s not about reducing labor costs, growers say. It’s about saving the growing industry in general and strawberries in particular. Without a seed change in harvesting strawberries, it’s estimated a pound of strawberries could hit $10, making it out of reach for many American tables.

Two-thirds of the nation’s strawberry growers are investing in Harvest’s development. In other farming segments, some of the nation’s largest companies - like John Deere - are also developing machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotic solutions. Read more:

Can you put a hard hat on that robot?

There are more than million robots working on factory floors around the world. We’ve all seen them building cars at BMW, working side by side with human handlers. But like most manufacturing robots, they are designed to stay in one place.

Not anymore. Spearheaded by a major construction company in Japan, robots are being developed to play a role in the building of skyscrapers, an industry that has been hard to acclimate to automation, while at the same time it is severely affected by a Japanese labor shortage.

Requiring some half-million worker hours to build a 30-story tower, Shimizu Corp., a Japanese general contractor, has introduced robots that can weld beams, haul supplies and install ceiling panels. The biggest development challenge was that the robots would have to work around humans who are moving around at the same time – a task AI technologists believed was impossible.

But, using some of the same tech as self-driving cars, robot-run forklifts have been able to navigate the unpredictable environment of the construction site. And robot installers can lift 66 pounds at a time and install ceilings, taking over some of the most back-breaking work on the site. Read more:

Alexa, build this chair

Here’s something closer to home. Rumors have been flying for some time that Amazon was working on a home robot to augment Alexa. The robot, code-named Vesta (after the Roman goddess of family, hearth, and home), is utilizing the same technology as the construction robots to be able to navigate the typical family home. Amazon expects to be testing Vesta in employee’s homes by the end of this year, and could potentially have them commercially available sometime in 2019.

The sooner the better, I say, since we learned this week that a robot in Singapore had been able to accomplish something that eludes even the smartest of humans: Putting together Ikea furniture. Twenty minutes. No screaming. No throwing manuals across the room. No stomping on the leftover pieces (hint: there are no leftover pieces). If you’ve ever attempted this task, you know it’s not easy. And for a robot (or in this case, two robotic arms working together) it requires a number of skills including perception, coordination, planning, and control of a free-moving object (the chair in progress, and its pieces).

Nearly 70 years have elapsed between Asimov’s fantastical idea and today’s reality. Will it be, as Asimov envisioned: “... you just can't differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans.”