The Robots Are Coming – And Some Are Already Here

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Here at PYMNTS, we’ve long bemoaned our lack of a robot butler. “The Jetsons,” after all, promised us a bright future of flying cars and Rosey the Robot to make our meals, clean our messes, do our laundry and offer up snappy comebacks throughout the whole experience.

Unfortunately, the future has not yet turned out the way the Jetsons promised. Cars are getting technologically impressive, but they don’t fly as of yet. And instead of Rosey, we have Alexa, Siri and Google – all of whom are getting better on the witty repartees, but whose skills at cooking, cleaning and general chores leave a lot to be desired.

Why don’t we have robot butlers, as the cartoons of the past promised us? Well, there are lots of technological limitations in the field, and it turns out that consumers aren’t all that into robots anyway. Robots from Anki, Jibo and LG have all premiered with great fanfare and attracted some initial interest, but quickly fell out of favor when it turned out they didn’t deliver much in the way of usefulness. Consumers also occasionally reported finding them creepy.

But just because robot servants are unlikely to be part of our lives in the near future doesn’t mean they won’t soon make a big difference in the average consumer’s life. That’s because robotics is enjoying something of a boom at present, handling a lot of new and useful work well out of consumers’ sight.

The Robotic Dog That Helps Build Cars

Consider Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant, which recently brought in two new dogs – Fluffy and Spot – onto the Detroit site’s assembly line.

They’re not intended to be the workers’ new mascots or pets; in fact, Fluffy and Spot aren’t even real dogs. Although they look kind of dog-like, they’re actually quadruped robots designed by Boston Dynamics and leased by Ford. Fluffy and Spot travel the plant and gather data that can be synthesized into improvements in the production process, according to The Economist.

Such robots aren’t cheap. Although Ford is leasing them, Boston Dynamics has recently started selling the robo-mutts for $75,000 apiece.

That’s a big price tag, but it’s not so bad when one considers that doing that using humans to perform that kind of plant surveying work would cost roughly $300,000. Fluffy and Spot, which can both climb stairs and crawl into hard-to-reach areas, will also cut the required time in half and complete the job for a fraction of the cost.

And while Boston Dynamics is one of the better-known names in the robot game, it’s far from the only one. An increasing number of manufacturers are making biped and quadruped robots available for industrial production.

Jonathan Hurst, co-founder of Agility Robotics, told The Economist that once the industry gets past modifications that still need to happen, “we are going to have millions of walking robots in human environments.”

Agility recently released a two-legged, two-armed robot that looks like an ostrich and costs $25,000. But Hurst noted that as with drones, robot prices will fall as demand increases and more get built. That will spur even more demand, along with even lower costs and faster innovation.

Robotic Hotel Workers

In fact, robots have recently made two separate-but-connected pushes into the world of retail.

The first was on the front end, as robots increasingly make appearances as frontline workers. The Hotel Trio in Healdsburg, California sparked a mini-media frenzy when it introduced the world to Rosé, its “social-distancing robot ambassador.”

Rosé has actually been prowling the hotel since 2018, but has gone from being a neat add-on to an important part of guest services since the COVID-19 outbreak began. Hotel General Manager Scott Satterfield said Rosé delivers everything from pet treats to towels to guest rooms while flashing digital messages like “I’m on a guest delivery” as she rolls to her destination.

“For guests who prefer contactless deliveries, Rosé provides them with peace of mind, as she can deliver items to their suite,” Satterfield said in a news release.

Meanwhile, Hilton has also incorporated robot cleaning assistants into its housekeeping staff to offer guests contact-free cleaning. And other hotels are using robots to assist their housekeeping staff with the more intensive cleaning that’s become part of many sites’ pandemic response.

Warehouse Robots

On the back end, robots are playing a growing number of important roles in the retail supply chain.

CEO Scott Gravelle of Attabotics told PYMNTS in a recent conversation that the company’s robotic wheeled shuttles bring goods to warehouse workers for packing and shipping. That can dramatically upgrade supply chain efficiency, something that firms of all descriptions are looking for in the post-pandemic era.

Gravelle said the shift to automated warehousing and robot-assisted supply chains is coming –because without it, there’s no reasonable way for eCommerce merchants to keep up with today’s rapidly digitizing economy.

“We know the future’s coming because we can see it in consumer behavior,” he said.

A Do-It-Yourself Robotic Dog

If you find yourself looking at Boston Dynamics’ digital dogs and wishing you could have such a technologically-oriented pet yourself, we have some good news for you.

While a robot butler isn’t in your immediate future, a robotic dog could be – a very small one named “Bittle” that costs less than $200.

Pittsburgh-based company Petoi launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund additional R&D on the robotic toy dog. Users actually build it themselves, then write code commands using Petoi’s OpenCat software. People can also purchase additional hardware modules such as a camera or gesture sensor to give little Bittle even more skills.

The robotic dog can walk at about two body lengths per second at top speed, and can also remember instinctive motion patterns or be run by remote control.

How useful is Bittle? Well, he’s no Rosey – but a robo-dog that consumers can build and program themselves might be the first step toward getting the public accustomed to robots as regularly occurring parts of their lives.

And with users programming Bittle themselves, it likely won’t have a tragic good-bye like Jibo did when its parent company folded. The robot sang a song, said goodbye, did a small dance and shut down forever, breaking many Jibo owners’ hearts in the process.

That setback aside, it seems that robots are here to stay – and will soon show up in many more places than anyone would have predicted.

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