Humans vs. Robots, which species is winning?
ROUND 1: SIGNAL-JAMMING DRONE GUN USED BY AUSTRALIAN DEFENSE FORCE
Drones are a real concern for public safety officials who have been scrambling to figure out how to defend against them during big events.
One company, DroneShield, believes the answer lies in jamming an encroaching drone's control signals. That strategy got some endorsement on the world stage during the recent ASEAN Summit in Sydney, where members of the Australian Defence Force deployed with the company's DroneGun.
TAKEAWAY: Flying robot, meet giant drone cannon.
ROUND 2: IN SPITE OF MILITARY ASSURANCES, AUTONOMOUS WEAPONS RESEARCH SPEEDS AHEAD
Under a program nicknamed "Wingman," the Army recently announced it is range testing autonomous vehicles equipped with robotic weapons systems. So far, engineers have managed to successfully destroy targets with a self-driving Humvee equipped with an onboard autonomous 7.62 mm weapon system.
TAKEAWAY: Autonomous weapons are coming to battlefields around the globe, and that's scary.
ROUND 3: THE ATLAS SHELF-STACK FAIL THAT BROKE THE INTERNET
Boston Dynamics makes some mighty impressive robots. One of them is Atlas, a 6-foot, 3-inch humanoid that made its public debut in 2013 and competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge.
But during a test exercise last year, video of which Boston Dynamics gamely shared with the world, the robot failed in spectacular fashion. Unable to place a box on a shelf, it ended up pulling the whole shelf down, then toppling over itself.
TAKEAWAY: Humanoid robots are advancing rapidly, but human dexterity and balance are still unique to our species.
ROUND 4: ROBOTS ARE ENABLING AN ARCHITECTURAL RENAISSANCE
Odico's flagship manufacturing system incorporates industrial robots that bend a heated blade while another manipulates a foam block. Together, the robots create foam casting molds for what are called double-curved geometries, such as domes (a cone, by comparison, is a single-curve geometry).
The molds can be used to make building materials that would otherwise have to be custom sourced from specialized design shops and shipped at huge expense. That frees human architects to pursue new designs.
TAKEAWAY: Robots can make previously unrealizable imaginative leaps of architects a reality.
ROUND 5: Bellhop
"The time has finally come when robots are going to be at our beck and call," Savioke's CEO, Steve Cousins, told me a couple years ago. "And for our robots in the hospitality industry we mean that quite literally."
Savioke makes Relay, a 3-feet tall robot that weighs less than 100 pounds and is designed to travel at human walking pace as it makes deliveries to hotel guests. It can even call the elevator via Wi-Fi to navigate between floors.
No palm greasing is required during deliveries... but I'm guessing it does need some oil now and then.
TAKEAWAY: The service industry is being automated at all levels.
ROUND 6: CASHIER-LESS
Reuters broke news that Microsoft has been working on technology to remove check-out lines and clerks from grocery stores.
On the heels of fanfare around Amazon Go convenience stores, Microsoft's entry into the space could set up a showdown between corporate giants.
Taking on Amazon in any retail environment is difficult, to say the least, but Microsoft may have an important brick-and-mortar ally. As Reuters reports, Microsoft has been in talks with Walmart to implement its technology.
TAKEAWAY: Cashiers will soon be obsolete.
ROUND 7: SAN FRANCISCO BANS DELIVERY DRIVERS IN MOST OF CITY
San Francisco's municipal legislators have voted to ban delivery robots on most of its sidewalks and severely restrict their use in areas where permitted.
The new rules are the strictest in the nation and a departure from the approach of states like Idaho, where new rules actively encourage robot delivery. Proponents say delivery robots relieve congestion and reduce accidents on city roads. But some pedestrians in San Francisco have complained that they crowd sidewalks and present a hazard to humans.
TAKEAWAY: Humans still have a choice about how and wear automation will spread ... for now.
ROUND 8: CLOi GOES SILENT ONSTAGE
It's the nightmare scenario for any spokesperson: Your much-hyped product fails in front of a live audience at the industry's biggest showcase.
That's what happened when David VanderWaal, LG's VP of marketing, tried to demo CLOi, LG's new home assistant robot at CES. The robot started off OK, responding to a scheduling command and setting a washing machine. Then disaster struck in the form of silence.
Here's video of the incident from the BBC.
TAKEAWAY: Consumer robotics are still an emerging and buggy technology.
ROUND 9: PARCEL DELIVERY BY DRONE
Iceland's largest native online marketplace, Aha.is, has been offering drone delivery along one limited route in Reykjavik for the last year. Now the company is announcing 13 new routes for its autonomous on-demand urban drone delivery service.
"Today's consumer desires almost instantaneous deliveries, almost as fast as they can click a button to order," said Maron Kristófersson, CEO of Aha. "Expanding our drone delivery service goes a long way towards meeting those sky-high expectations."
According to a spokesperson, the new routes will serve nearly half of Reykjavik. That saturation may seem shocking if you're living in a place where commercial drones have largely been kept out of the delivery space. But drone delivery is coming to urban centers worldwide sooner or later.
TAKEAWAY: Parcel delivery is going to the machines.
ROUND 10: ROBOT DJ UPROAR
Last New Year's Eve, a nightclub in Prague called Karlovy Lazne Music Club debuted a robot disc jockey named DJ Kuka. The single-arm robot grabs discs and changes songs with a gripper while bobbing along to music amid an extravagant light display.
Fans were a little underwhelmed.
"It can't feel what the people want to dance to," one attendee told Reuters. "There is no emotion behind the music. When there is a real person, they know what fun is like."
TAKEAWAY: Vibe and creativity still seem like uniquely human traits.
ROUND 11: ROBOTIC SUITS TO AUGMENT HUMAN STRENGTH
Robotic exoskeletons are back in the news after Ford ordered 75 robotic suits from Ekso Bionics.
The relatively small number of orders belies the significance of this moment for a fantastically advanced set of technologies that have been searching for a viable market for over a decade now. Wearable robots that augment human strength have attracted big investment money, and now they're making their way into the workplace.
TAKEAWAY: Robots can give people super human strength.
ROUND 12: LINE COOK
Flippy, the burger-flipping robot by Miso Robotics, scored a coup in 2017 when it debuted at a Pasadena CaliBurger, a trendy fast-food chain in tech-obsessed California. CaliBurger also preordered dozens of units for additional restaurants under a short-term exclusive contract.
The automaton is essentially a lightweight industrial robotic arm with a spatula for an end effector and some complex machine vision capabilities. Right now the robot is merely flipping burgers.
But Flippy's AI allows it to learn over time, enabling it to adjust cooking duration to ensure a perfect finish.
Eventually, CaliBurger plans to use the robots, which cost about $60,000 per unit, to do things like toast buns and grill onions.
TAKEAWAY: Fast food is next on the automation chopping block.
ROUND 13: FOLDING MACHINE ON THE FRITZ
FoldiMate, a clothes folding robot that costs nearly $1000, raised some eyebrows at CES this year, but not for the right reasons.
Attendees were underwhelmed to learn that clothes have to be fed in one at a time, somewhat eliminating the time-savings the device is supposed to deliver. It also reportedly jams easily.
Another laundry folding device called the Laundroid also got low marks at CES, mostly for costing $16,000 and being the size of a fridge.
TAKEAWAY: Even seemingly mundane problems are still complex enough to give robots a hard time.
ROUND 14: GROCERY DELIVERY
AutoX, which was founded by a young Princeton Professor named Jianxiong Xiao (Professor X to his students), just announced it will begin delivering groceries via its L4 autonomous vehicles in San Jose, with additional public trials to follow. That's on the heels of Kroger's announcement that it will be teaming up with Nuro to deliver groceries autonomously.
TAKEAWAY: Delivery drivers are doomed, and grocery stores may be as well.
ROUND 15: DR. OCTOPUS ARMS (THAT SOMEONE ELSE CONTROLS)
This wearable robotic backpack brings tele-presence to a whole new level by putting someone else in charge of your very own robotic arms. The idea is an evolution on the concept of telepresence robots, which physically embody remote workers, enabling them to navigate offices and interact with coworkers. Though the robot is more conceptual than practical at this stage, it's easy to envision a use case in enterprise training, for example.
TAKEAWAY: Humans and robots can join forces.
ROUND 16: WOMEN WILL LOSE MORE JOBS TO AUTOMATION THAN MEN
A World Economic Forum report presented at Davos suggests there will be a measurable gender disparity when it comes to jobs lost to automation.
The report, titled Toward a Reskilling Revolution: A Future of Jobs for All, reiterates US Bureau of Labor and Statistics findings that 1.4 million jobs in the US will be disrupted or lost to automation and other factors between now and 2026. Of those, according to the World Economic Forum's research, 57 percent will belong to women.
TAKEAWAY: Automation will not affect everyone equally, but there are a lot of society-wide growing pains to come.
ROUND 17: THAT SUICIDAL FOUNTAIN ROBOT
Knightscope's Fountain Fail is now the stuff of legend.
This past July, one of the company's K5 security robots took an unexpected (and self-guided) plunge into the fountain of a Washington DC. building it was charged with protecting.
Reflections evidently led the robot to mistake the water for a solid surface. Predictably, the internet exploded.
TAKEAWAY: Real world environments can still trick sensor technology.
ROUND 18: LAST-MILE DELIVERY
A recent Amazon patent kicked the race for autonomous last-mile delivery into high gear. Now there's a race underway to see who can develop small robotic systems that can rove sidewalks in urban areas and deliver everything from takeout to elevator repair supplies.
TAKEAWAY: Delivery will soon be dominated by bots
ROUND 19: ROBOTS SERVE UP PIZZA
Japanese multinational SoftBank Group Corp is in talks to throw three-quarters of a billion dollars at a Silicon Valley startup that's using industrial automation and predictive analytics to streamline pizza delivery, Bloomberg first reported.
The startup is Zume Inc., which was founded in 2015 with a mission of rooting out inefficiencies in the $33 billion US quick-serve pizza market.
Zume has been delivering pizzas from its flagship location in Silicon Valley. It employs industrial robots fine tuned to perform like pizzaiolos. The robots prepare the dough, spread sauce and cheese, and man an 800-degree oven.
TAKEAWAY: Robots are quickly killing off old standby after school jobs
ROUND 20: ROBOT FIRED FROM STORE FOR UTTER INCOMPETENCE
It was a noble experiment gone awry.
The robot, a customized version of SoftBank's Pepper humanoid, was brought in to help a family-run Scottish grocery chain. At least that was the idea.
In practice, Scottish customers didn't want anything to do with the officious automaton. In part, it was a failure of the technology. Background noise in the store frequently prevented Fabio from understanding customer questions the first time asked.
TAKEAWAY: People still aren't all that comfortable with robots helping them.
ROUND 21: STORE SCANNING ROBOTS ROVE AISLES AT WALMART
Bossa Nova's robots rove stores scanning shelves and alerting managers to any issues with inventory, including misplaced or low-stock items. As I've written, the robots are also Big Data mining machines writ small, able to track product performance practically in real-time.
That kind of feedback gives brick-and-mortar retailers some of the same kinds of data that Amazon has long used to predict customer behavior.
TAKEAWAY: Brick-and-mortar is taking a page out of Amazon's playbook with automation and ruthless efficiency.
Sorry, meat sacks, looks like robots are poised to dominate.
FINAL SCORE: 9-10
ROUND 22: ROBOT SUITCASE WON'T STOP FALLING OVER
The Puppy 1 by Chinese firm 90Fun is what would happen if a Segway and a Samsonite had a baby.
The self-balancing, two-wheeled suitcase follows anyone holding a special remote control. It can also be controlled manually via a joystick on the remote.
Lacking obstacle-avoidance, however, it's a real hazard in a crowd or in all but the widest of linoleum-adorned terminals. And the prototype, at least, has another quirk: It keeps falling over unexpectedly.
TAKEAWAY: Maybe humans can roll their own luggage.