Robots must be smarter if they’re going to pack boxes in warehouses, scan inventory in stores, and even care for the elderly.
The rise of machine learning in recent years is making that possible. Steady innovation has led to robots that can independently “learn” to navigate tight corridors and grasp delicate objects without crushing them.
Some of the leading American and Japanese robotics companies and investors recently gathered in Menlo Park, Calif. to discuss artificial intelligence in robotics and its impact on business. Their conclusion? The robots are coming. But it may require some cooperation between the U.S. and an important overseas ally.
Japan has long been a powerhouse in robotics, fueled by its huge appetite for automating its automotive and manufacturing industries. But these kinds of old-school robots lack the cutting-edge machine-learning software that could help them continuously improve on the job.
Recognizing the problem, Japanese robotics companies, in some cases, are partnering with U.S. companies that specialize in A.I. software. The goal is to take the best from both countries.
“The Bay Area is good at software engineering and Japan is good at hardware engineering,” said Tomochika Uyama, the Consul General of Japan in San Francisco. The combination makes for “a perfect pairing,” he added.
For example, IHI Corporation, a Tokyo-based industrial equipment giant, recently partnered with San Francisco startup OSARO, which creates reinforcement learning software for robots that helps them, through trial and error, pick up objects they’re never encountered before. The spawn of the partnership is now being used in IHI’s warehouses to grab objects like water bottles and toothpaste and then place them in bins on conveyor belts.
“We are hardware manufacturer, so we are looking for a partner who can bring us the new power of A.I.,” said IHI vice president Kohei Taya.
Amazon, which uses thousands of robots in its warehouses, is somewhat of a role model in robotics. The company acquired robot maker Kiva Systems in 2012 for $775 million, and has since used its technology to jumpstart its use of robots internally. Last week, during an event in Las Vegas, Amazon showed off two new robots that can more efficiently move and sort packages than older models. The machines are intended to speed up the warehouse work while saving money.
Now, it appears more robotic companies are trying to create the next big Kiva Systems that could help more businesses than just Amazon package goods and track inventory. If the recent robotics event in Menlo Park is any indication, some of these next-generation robots could be the result of U.S.-Japanese teamwork.