Cleaning machine: SoftBank brings AI to a dirty job

SoftBank sees robotics opportunity in Japan's labor shortage, and an American AI firm is steering the way.

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Japanese conglomerate SoftBank has unveiled a new robot designed to clean commercial floors. Called Whiz, the robot is being touted by the company as a potential remedy to Japan's chronic labor shortage.

SoftBank also makes Pepper, a helpful humanoid used in retail environments.

The company looked internationally for its development and manufacturing this time out. The robot's body will be manufactured using Chinese parts, and San Diego-based Brain Corp, an AI company that develops self-driving technology for robots, is powering autonomous capabilities for Whiz.

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Brain Corp received just north of $100 million in funding from SoftBank's Vision Fund in 2017, but this represents the first-time Brain Corp has entered the Japanese market. It's a feather in the cap for a young company hoping to drive autonomous navigation for the world's rapidly growing fleet of mobile robots.

"This effort with SoftBank Robotics represents an important milestone in our company's development," says Brain Corp co-founder and CEO, Dr. Eugene Izhikevich. "BrainOS is now powering numerous robots of different sizes and use cases, thereby proving that BrainOS has the capability and flexibility to effectively automate any mobile machine."

According to Izhikevich, SoftBank's cleaning robot platform might also serve as a stepping stone for additional small-scale autonomous robots.

"This vacuum's robotic drive system can be leveraged by Brain Corp's partners to create additional BrainOS-powered robots in applications like delivery, security and healthcare, just to name a few. We look forward to continuing to work with SoftBank Robotics and extending the reach of BrainOS into Japan and around the world."

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The robot defines its working space using a bevy of sensors, including lasers and a 3D camera. It can clean about 1500 square meters on a single charge, which lasts about three hours.

The robot will be available "as-a-service" starting in 2019. Enterprise customers will pay about $230 per month for each unit.

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