What Amazon’s ideal robot looks like

Robots should be available at the fingertips and work in tandem with humans and other machines to improve task efficiency, says the chief technologist of Amazon Robotics

At Amazon’s massive warehouses across the globe, thousands of robots traverse an area the size of nearly two dozen football fields to lift and shift shelves of products for human operators to pick up specific items for an order.

During peak shopping seasons, such as Cyber Monday in the US, as many as 550 items are fulfilled each second by robots working alongside people in a glimpse of what Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, dubbed as a “symphony of humans and machines working together in collaboration to achieve greater task efficiency”.

Speaking at the Amazon Innovation Day in Sydney, Australia, Brady said while robots can augment human capability and free people to work on tasks they are good at, such as solving problems, there is more that needs to be done to improve robotic systems today.

For a start, Brady said robotic systems should be physically closer to people like a smartphone is, so that humans can perform tasks quickly at their fingertips.

In addition, robotic systems should also be able to create learning environments for both human and robots to understand their respective capabilities, so that machines can be tasked in ways that humans see fit.

“The machines will become more powerful and collaborative because they can do what you want them to do,” said Brady.

He added that robots should also be equipped with more intuitive human-machine interfaces such as Alexa, as well as gesture, touch, and even body language interfaces, to improve collaboration.

Robots should also be able to move contextually so they can navigate real-world environments like humans do, Brady said.

“If you’re going down a hallway with a bunch of stuff, you know when to speed up and slow down,” he added. “For our machines to understand the environment really goes a long way – robots are really slow today and are too cautious.”

Finally, robots should be connected to one another through the cloud to solve problems collectively and improve overall system behaviour, Brady said. For example, if an item has fallen out of a shelf, other robots can step in to help or investigate the situation.

Read more about robotics and AI in Australia and New Zealand

Australia has been setting itself up to ride on the benefits of robotics. Despite its high levels of niche manufacturing, the country is currently ranked 30th in the world for global automation, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

“On the surface, while we are robotic leaders in many areas, it appears Australia is lagging on this measure and that’s of concern,” said Sue Keay, chief operating officer of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision.

In October 2017, the centre said it would drive the country’s first robotics and computer vision roadmap, which Keay said is about more than just making industries more automated.

“The strength of our robotics and computer vision technologies will drive the transformation of existing industries and create whole new industries. This has significant impact for the future of Australia’s workforce as well as ensuring we have vibrant, competitive and sustainable industry sectors,” she said.

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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