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Are You Ready for a Robot Colleague?

Robots are moving into new areas of work, and it isn’t entirely clear how staff and customers will react.
September 28, 2015

Those who work in professions from warehouse staff to hotel concierges may soon count a robot among their colleagues.

This robot, developed by ​Clearpath Robotics, can carry heavy loads around a factory or warehouse.

While Amazon has pioneered the use of robots in its fulfillment centers, its robots are still largely separated from human workers (see “Inside Amazon”). The next generation of workplace bots will work in much closer proximity to regular employees. Some will replace workers entirely, but most will simply take on the more mundane tasks of a human’s job.

Clearpath Robotics, a company based in Ontario, Canada, launched a robotic platform designed to take on the work done by forklift truck drivers in warehouses and factories. The company’s system, called Otto, was on show at the RoboBusiness conference in San Jose, California, last week. Several companies are testing the system, including GE, which has also invested in Clearpath.

Otto first must be driven through a warehouse, so that its laser sensors can map the environment. The user can then load the system with heavy items and command it to go from one part of the warehouse to another. And Otto will navigate around obstacles, including people, as it goes.

Another new robot on display at the show, from a company called Fetch Robotics, based in San Jose, will follow warehouse workers around with a bin, helping them retrieve items from shelves. Once a bin has been filled, the robot will roll away, and another will take its place.

Melonee Wise, founder of Fetch, says careful thought needs to be put into the way other workers will react to a robot (see “Innovators Under 35: Melonee Wise”). “So it’s in our best interest to make that interaction as smooth and enjoyable as possible,” she says. “If they don’t want to work with our product, then no matter how good it is, it isn’t going to make it very far.”

Another version of Fetch’s robot has a torso and a single arm at its center. That robot is meant to take the place of a human worker, retrieving products in concert with a bin-carrying bot.

Human-robot interaction, which has been a theme in academic research for some time, is now becoming more commercially relevant. Wise says, for example, that research has shown that a certain shape of head can be intimidating, and that a voice interface can encourage a particular type of interaction. “When robots talk, it conveys a certain level of intelligence, and people start thinking the robot is smarter than them, so they’re less likely to help the robot,” she says. “When the robot has nonverbal cues, people are much more willing to help out.”

Other robot startups have discovered odd challenges with robots designed to work closely with people.

A company called Fellow Robots, based in San Jose, has developed a mobile system that offers to help customers in a store. The armless, rectangular, wheeled robot is currently being tested at a nearby hardware store and at a few undisclosed locations. The system circles the store, and customers can use it to search for products, either by voice or via a touch screen. Once it has found an item, it will lead a customer to the correct location.

Colin Ritchie, head of business development for Fellow Robots, says there was initially some concern among employees that the robots would take away jobs, although this turned into a realization that the robot would just take over one of the more boring parts of their jobs, he says.

But it isn’t only workers who will interact with the robots, and customer behavior can be tricky to predict. The original design for the robot was humanoid, Ritchie says, but user testing showed this unnerved some people. “If you make it too human, people will resist it,” he says. “Now it looks more like a friendly Dalek.”

For all the hand-wringing over jobs, and despite the fate of Hitchbot (a simple robot that asked for rides and was destroyed in Philadelphia), there are few examples of people reacting very poorly to new types of robots.

Savioke, a company that has developed a robot that brings items to hotel rooms, which is already deployed at a few locations in California, has discovered that most hotel guests love using the robot, says Adrian Canoso, who designed the robot and its software. A concierge will place an item in a bin built into the robot and let it find its way to a guest’s room. It is capable of calling the elevator for itself and will telephone a room once it has arrived. It will also ask for a rating and perform a small dance if given five stars.

Canoso says there was just one incident, early on, in which an apparently drunk guest pushed the robot over, much to the dismay of hotel staff. But he points out that this person might have behaved just as badly toward a human member of the staff.

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