Alphabet is putting its prototype robots to work cleaning up around Google’s offices

What does Google’s parent company Alphabet want with robots? Well, it would like them to clean up around the office, for a start.

The company announced today that its Everyday Robots Project — a team within its experimental X labs dedicated to creating “a general-purpose learning robot” — has moved some of its prototype machines out of the lab and into Google’s Bay Area campuses to carry out some light custodial tasks.

“We are now operating a fleet of more than 100 robot prototypes that are autonomously performing a range of useful tasks around our offices,” said Everyday Robot’s chief robot officer Hans Peter Brøndmo in a blog post. “The same robot that sorts trash can now be equipped with a squeegee to wipe tables and use the same gripper that grasps cups can learn to open doors.”

These robots in question are essentially arms on wheels, with a multipurpose gripper on the end of a flexible arm attached to a central tower. There’s a “head” on top of the tower with cameras and sensors for machine vision and what looks like a spinning lidar unit on the side, presumably for navigation.

One of Alphabet’s Everyday Robot machines cleans the crumbs off a cafe table.
Image: Alphabet

As Brøndmo indicates, these bots were first seen sorting out recycling when Alphabet debuted the Everyday Robot team in 2019. The big promise that’s being made by the company (as well as by many other startups and rivals) is that machine learning will finally enable robots to operate in “unstructured” environments like homes and offices.

Right now, we’re very good at building machines that can carry out repetitive jobs in a factory, but we’re stumped when trying to get them to replicate simple tasks like cleaning up a kitchen or folding laundry.

Think about it: you may have seen robots from Boston Dynamics performing backflips and dancing to The Rolling Stones, but have you ever seen one take out the trash? It’s because getting a machine to manipulate never-before-seen objects in a novel setting (something humans do every day) is extremely difficult. This is the problem Alphabet wants to solve.

Unit 033 makes a bid for freedom.
Image: Alphabet

Is it going to? Well, maybe one day — if company execs feel it’s worth burning through millions of dollars in research to achieve this goal. Certainly, though, humans are going to be cheaper and more efficient than robots for these jobs in the foreseeable future. The update today from Everyday Robot is neat, but it’s far from a leap forward. You can see from the GIFs that Alphabet shared of its robots that they’re still slow and awkward, carrying out tasks inexpertly and at a glacial pace.

However, it’s still definitely something that the robots are being tested “in the wild” rather than in the lab. Compare Alphabet’s machines to Samsung’s Bot Handy, for example; a similar-looking tower-and-arm bot that the company showed off at CES last year, apparently pouring wine and loading a dishwasher. At least, Bot Handy looks like it’s performing these jobs, but really it was only carrying out a prearranged demo. Who knows how capable, if at all, this robot is in the real world? At least Alphabet is finding this out for itself.

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Canon put AI cameras in its Chinese offices that only let smiling workers inside

Tech company Canon has come up with a downright dystopic way to tackle the problem of workplace morale: it’s installed cameras with AI-enabled “smile recognition” technology in the offices of its Chinese subsidiary Canon Information Technology. The cameras only let smiling workers enter rooms or book meetings, ensuring that every employee is definitely, 100 percent happy all the time.

This depressing tale was highlighted in a report from The Financial Times on how Chinese companies are surveilling employees to an unsettling degree with the help of AI and algorithms. Firms are monitoring which programs employees use on their computers to gauge their productivity; using CCTV cameras to measure how long they take on their lunch break; and even tracking their movements outside the office using mobile apps.

As the King’s College London academic Nick Srnicek told the FT: “Workers are not being replaced by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Instead, the management is being sort of augmented by these technologies […] Technologies are increasing the pace for people who work with machines instead of the other way around, just like what happened during the industrial revolution in the 18th century.”

Canon Information Technology actually announced its “smile recognition” cameras last year as part of a suite of workplace management tools, but the technology doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention. Indeed, the fact it passed under the radar is a good illustration of just how common surveillance tools like this are becoming — and not just in China.

Although readers in the West sometimes have a tendency to dismiss the sort of surveillance described by the FT as a foreign phenomena, countries like the US and UK are just as culpable. Amazon is perhaps the prime example of this dynamic: it’s known for squeezing every ounce of effort from its warehouse workers at the expense of their health, and even ranking their productivity using algorithms before firing those at the bottom of the scale.

Such modern-day Taylorism is not restricted to blue collar jobs, either: many modern software suites like Microsoft 365 come with built-in surveillance tools. And with more people working from home because of the pandemic, more companies are deploying these features for fear of losing control over their workers. (Or, for a slightly more cynical read: they’ve always wanted to use these tools and the pandemic provides a handy pretext.)

In other words: AI-enabled smile recognition cameras are in many ways the least dangerous types of surveillance technology. They have the benefit of being obvious. Other systems of control are much more subtle, and probably coming to an office near you sometime soon.

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Density launches occupancy-tracking software for offices, raises $25M

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Density, a startup developing a range of people-counting, AI-powered sensors, today announced it has raised $25 million. Density says the capital will be used to accelerate growth and scale initiatives as it releases an addition to its software suite called Portfolio.

In many respects, Density’s products were tailored for a health crisis. Cities around the world have imposed limits on businesses — particularly restaurants — regarding the number of customers they allow in. Moreover, the shift to working from home and pandemic-driven financial headwinds have companies questioning the need for physical office space. Even before the pandemic, U.S. Commercial Real Estate Services estimated unused commercial property in the U.S. to be worth about $1 trillion. In August, Capital Markets reported that direct commercial sales of real estate fell 29% globally to $321 billion in the first six months of 2020 (year-over-year).

To this end, Portfolio draws on Density sensor data to show real-time, day-over-day “return to office”  insights. The company says the new benchmarking feature was designed to help real estate teams view office usage information across a collection of properties. Portfolio automatically records weekly occupancy and usage changes, enabling users to set safe maximum capacities based on local requirements. Beyond this, the software surfaces data over time to enable companies to “right-size” their workspaces.

Density leverages depth-measuring hardware and an AI backend to perform crowd analytics that overcome the challenges posed by corners, hallways, doorways, and conference rooms. Clients like Pepsi, Delta, Verizon, Uber, Marriot, and ExxonMobil use its stack to figure out which parts of their offices get the most and least use and deliver people-counting metrics to hundreds and even thousands of employees.

Density Portfolio

Above: Density’s new Portfolio software.

Image Credit: Density

Density cofounder and CEO Andrew Farah conceived of Density’s technology while he was in graduate school at Syracuse and working at a mobile software development firm. His initial goal — to measure how busy a popular coffee shop was — led him to explore a couple of solutions before settling on the one that formed the foundation for Density’s people-counting sensors.

According to Farah, Density’s tracking offers an advantage over other approaches: peace of mind. Unlike a security camera, its sensors can’t determine the gender or ethnicity of the people it tracks, nor perform invasive facial recognition. This approach also allows Density’s sensors to do occupancy detection inside of rooms where cameras can’t go for compliance reasons.

Density recently launched Open Area, a sensor that uses AI and radar to track physical workspace usage. More capable than Density’s previous sensors, it detects key points on people’s bodies that the device translates in software to point clouds on a 3D graph. For instance, when positioned above a desk where people are seated, Open Area can show the rough outline of those people as they come and go.

The pandemic initially hurt Density’s sales because many customers temporarily shut down. But since the close of its series B funding in June 2018 and its $51 million round in July, the company says its sensors have counted more than 150 million people in dozens of countries across hundreds of millions of square feet.

Existing and previous Density backers include Kleiner Perkins, 01 Advisors, Upfront Ventures, Founders Fund, Ludlow Ventures, Launch, Disruptive, and LPC Ventures, with participation from Alex Rodriguez, Julia and Kevin Hartz, Cyan and Scott Banister, and others. This latest round brings the New York-based company’s total raised to over $100 million.


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