Please do not tip the robot

Greetings from Cupertino, California, where the temperature has cooled to a much more reasonable 101 degrees. That’s a nice change from the 109 degrees we hit here on Tuesday. This week I’m here for big Apple event. There’s been no robotics news to talk about, but that’s why we’re coming to you a day late with Actuator. I’ll try not to make a habit of it.

We have an interesting selection of robotics news this week. It’s really a testament to how broad this field has become in recent decades. But first, let’s start with a few familiar companies. I wanted to call this moment from Kirsten’s recent piece on Uber’s rollout of Nuro’s autonomous curbside for Eats food delivery:

Uber Eats customers will be charged the same for delivery, whether it’s a Nuro bot or a gig attendant. However, there may be some cost savings as Nuro bots cannot accept tips. Customers will not know at the time of their order if they are receiving a private delivery or if it is a typical courier delivery. If the Eats customer pre-selects the tip option and Nuro makes the delivery, that tip will be refunded.

I emphasize this for two reasons:

  1. It’s just objectively funny, recovering a random tip on a robot.
  2. It’s an important reminder of all the unintended consequences of implementing new technologies.

Image Credits: Nuro

This is a good opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of an Uber Eats customer (a position many of us have no doubt been in more than a few times over the past 2.5 years). Imagine this scenario: You place an order for one of those massive missionary-style burritos from your favorite neighborhood taqueria. While you’re waiting for that huge, gooey cylinder of guacamole and beans, consider this: Who would you rather see at the door? Robot or human?

No judgement. There are many things to consider. First and foremost is the novelty factor. This is something I discuss a lot with people who make food robots like Flippy. There is palpable excitement when you see your pizza or hamburger being made by a robot for the first time. Of course, such things disappear quite quickly, and suddenly the value of the product comes down to its efficacy. I suspect that for many people there will be real excitement the first time one of these little robots pulls up to their door.

Also, do you have a particular preference? Do you want the human touch? Do you want a robot that isn’t a potential disease vector (something that, again, has undoubtedly been top of mind for many over the past few years)? Do you feel guilty about a concert attendant delivering a burrito by bike in the rain when you’re sitting at home cozy and dry? How about the guilt you feel knowing that a robot has replaced a source of income for a human?

You probably don’t feel particularly guilty about not tipping a robot like you would a human (guilt about not tipping humans should be in the Turing Test, honestly). And there’s certainly something to be said for saving $5 or $10 dollars off a $20 order tip. None of this happens overnight, of course. Even after years of research, development and piloting, there are still many regulatory and other hurdles to navigate — so you have time to figure all of the above out.

A real-time, real-time robotics controller

Image Credits: Real-time robotics

The big funding news of the week is a mid-round hosted by Realtime Robotics. The $14.4 million round comes 15 months after the Boston-based robot implementation firm announced a $31 million Series A. Realtime is one of the few companies working to solve the problems surrounding industrial robots. Specifically, how can non-robotics deploy these machines and help avoid some potentially unpleasant incidents along the way?

“We’ve seen a tremendous industry response to the launch of RapidPlan and its ability to make collision-free operations a reality for industrial robotics, speeding programming time and increasing throughput,” CEO Peter Howard said in a release. “We recently moved away from hardware to pure software, making it even easier for all customers and partners to integrate our revolutionary technology within their existing stack and workflows. This latest round of funding will help us scale to meet demand.”


Image Credits: Brian Heather

From the We All Saw This Coming Department comes word that the FTC is investigating Amazon’s planned acquisition of iRobot. The news excited home robotics enthusiasts and raised serious concerns among privacy advocates.

If you’ve followed Amazon for a while, you know the myriad concerns about things like law enforcement use of its Rekognition human detection software, as well as its Ring security cameras. The iRobot acquisition takes these issues to a new level. Specifically, the high-end Roomba has sensors designed to map the interior of your home.

Politico notes in the report that “the companies are preparing for a potentially lengthy, difficult investigation, according to two people familiar with the probe.” The news comes as The Wall Street Journal reports that the agency is also looking into Amazon’s planned acquisition of One Medical.

Image Credits: Spooky robotics

Speaking of governments and robots, the UK Ministry of Defense’s Defense Equipment and Maintenance Organization announced that it was being tested potential uses for Ghost Robotics’ dog in the British Army. The DE&S Future Capability Group (FCG) also pilots Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, although the Ghosts systems have raised far more eyebrows recently due to the firm’s rather agnostic approach to using the system in conflict, including third-party development of an autonomous rifle.

For now, at least, the interest revolves around sending the robot into dangerous places to potentially save human lives. Says Dave Swan of the inappropriately delightfully named FCG Expeditionary Robotics Center of Expertise:

In today’s battlespace, robotics are becoming increasingly important to enable soldiers to operate faster and longer. The four-legged Ghost V60 offers enhanced situational awareness for soldiers on the ground. It has the potential to act as the eyes and ears for frontline military personnel – increasing accuracy in target identification and acquisition.

This offers many potential use cases for the British military, from delivering mission-critical supplies, surveying dangerous areas or carrying out combat tasks deemed too dangerous for humans. Ultimately, the Ghost V60 quadruped is designed to reduce the risk to life and the burden on military personnel.

Head portrait of an adult black and white cow, gentle gaze, pink nose, in front of a blue sky.

Image Credits: Getty Images

here it is an eye-opening story on choosing the ‘right herd’ for robotic milking systems. Admire such amazing sentences as: “Good udder shape. This makes it easier for the robot to attach the milking unit and clean the teats.”This is perhaps an inversion of how we might traditionally think of this system, as robots tailored to the cows rather than the other way around.

Image Credits: Softbank Robotics

Finally, from the University of Cambridge comes a study that aims to determine how useful social assistive robots (SARs) can be as part of a therapeutic process for children. Learningwho used Softbank’s Nao robot, surveyed children ages 8 to 13 and noted:

Our results indicate that robotic assessment appears to be the most appropriate mode for identifying abnormalities related to child well-being in the three participant groups compared to self-report and parent-report modes. Furthermore, children with decreasing levels of well-being (lower, middle, and higher tertiles) show different response patterns: children in the higher tertile are more negative in their responses to the robot, while those in the lower tertile are more positive in their responses to the robot. Findings from this work suggest that the SAR may be a promising tool for the potential assessment of problems related to children’s mental well-being.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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