Ocado joins research programme to develop humanoid robot helper

Online grocer joins a consortium of universities in a research project to create an autonomous humanoid robot

Online grocer Ocado is supporting a civilian robot research initiative, which aims to use artificial intelligence (AI), 3D vision and humanoid movement to support workers.

As part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, the robot will use AI, machine learning and advanced vision systems to understand what human workers want, and offer assistance with difficult maintenance jobs.

The project, called SecondHands, aims to design a robot that could hand tools to human maintenance technicians and manipulate objects such as ladders, pneumatic cylinders and bolts – abilities which cannot be found in any commercial robot. The objective is to increase safety, efficiency and productivity in the workplace, according to Ocado.

Ocado Technology robotics research team leader Graham Deacon said: "The ultimate aim is for humans to end up relying on collaborative robots because they have become an active participant in their daily tasks. In essence, the SecondHands robot will know what to do, when to do it and how to do it in a manner that a human can depend on."

The initiative, which will span five years, will aim to build robots that have cognitive and perceptive ability to understand when the operator is in need of help, how this help can be given and then provide relevant assistance.

In terms of artificial intelligence, Ocado said the robot will be able to anticipate the needs of the maintenance technician and execute the appropriate tasks without prompting.

It will also have 3D vision and support human-like flexibility by incorporating an active sensor head, two redundant torque controlled arms, two anthropomorphic hands, a bendable and extendable torso, and a wheeled mobile platform.

Along with SecondHands, Ocado Technology is also working on a second, complementary, Horizon 2020 project called ΣΩMA (pronounced Soma), which will see the firm partner with a number of universities to explore new ways for robots to physically interact with their environment. It is hoped this will create a ground-breaking robotic hand which can be used in conjunction with SecondHands.

Emulating a human hand, the robotic gripper will know when to grasp softly, such as when picking an apple, or to grip more tightly, such as when lifting a bottle of water.

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SecondHands is among a number of AI projects Ocado has been working on. When Computer Weekly spoke to Paul Clarke, chief technology officer at Ocado in 2013, he said the company was investigating a vision system which could support automated item-picking in the warehouse. Such a system would have to cope with unique technical challenges, compared with robotics on a production line where the robot follows a pre-determined set of procedures.

Gartner recently urged CIOs to take notice of the rise of smart machines. Gartner fellow Steve Prentice said: "As smart machines become increasingly capable, they will be viable alternatives to human workers under certain circumstances, which will lead to significant repercussions for the business and CIOs."

The SecondHands project illustrates how business is now working with researchers to create smart, autonomous machines. But as Prentice warned in a previous Computer Weekly article, a self-aware machine may have to make moral, potentially life and death decisions. "If a machine makes a decision, what happens if it gets it wrong," he wrote.

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