If you’ve ever seen Amazon’s robots whizzing across its warehouse floors, you’ll know it’s a sort of hypnotic dance, which ends up with someone’s order being delivered that much quicker. The other thing about this spectacle is it all takes place behind a cage that separates man and machine.
The metal barrier is, of course, there for safety reasons — and like the Amazon fulfillment centers, it is the norm in factories with production lines building everything from cars and cell phones to refrigerators. Veo Robotics, which specializes in making industrial robots smarter, reckons about 3 million machines worldwide are kept well away from human contact to avoid catastrophe.
And that’s where Veo’s technology comes in. The company has raised a total of $28 million since it was founded in 2016 to develop proprietary technology that effectively gives robots eyes, allowing them to operate safely alongside human machine operators.
The product, a prototype of which launches in May, works using three-dimensional flash lidar cameras and AI, helping robots map the space around them and react when a human comes close. It’s not dissimilar to the tech used in driverless cars, and it allows robots to share a work station with an employee, combining human touch with the super-human speed and strength of a machine — all while removing the element of danger.
You can watch the tech in action here:
Patrick Sobalvarro, the founding CEO of Massachusetts-based Veo, thinks the tech could be a game-changer.
“The key thing from our point of view — in terms of ergonomics, in terms of products — is that humans and machines need to work together fluidly and fluently,” he told Business Insider. “Fundamentally, our technology allows industrial robots to track people. And from an environmental point of view, our tech provides a system which you as a manufacturer can set up in less than a day.”
Yet for all the benefits Veo’s technology may bring, it might also stir up some deep-seated fears. For example, the case for driverless cars is far from being won, particularly after a woman was killed by an Uber autonomous vehicle last year. Are Veo’s robots really safe enough to be uncaged? Sobalvarro is adamant they are.
“Safety is our primary ethical responsibility,” he said, turning to a familiar Silicon Valley trope to illustrate his point.
“Mark Zuckerberg’s motto is: ‘Move fast and break things.’ My cofounder Clara Vu, our head of engineering, came up with a riposte: ‘You can’t move fast and break things if those things are people.’
“Our safety system is fail-safe — the default is to emergency stop the robot if there are any internal faults in the system, so we will always fail to a safe state.
“We use dual-channel redundancy throughout our system, in the sensors themselves, as well as [in] our processor, which contains two independent computers, as well as a third safety processor to monitor them. We also use dual channel communications with the robot controller safety interfaces.
“This focus on safety extends to algorithms, too. Our system constantly analyzes occluded areas, places we can’t see, and we won’t let the robot move near them if we determine they could possibly contain a person.”
So if the safety box is ticked, what’s the business case?
“Today, 3 million robots are all behind cages, and that’s very burdensome,” Sobalvarro said. “Sometimes, you need to get permission just to get permission to open the cages, and that limits efficiency.
“From a financial perspective it costs $50,000 dollars per minute to stop a car production line — and yet there are 700 process steps to building a car. With current technology, workers sometimes have to stop after two hours and switch out because they’re exhausted from heavy lifting. Our tech works best for helping build things like cars — complex objects with lots of components.”
And commenting on the fear that robots will replace humans in the workplace, he added: “Our tech is designed to enhance the quality of work that human factory workers are able to do. The robots that use it will free up work for people; they won’t take it away.”
Veo’s $28 million in backing suggests that the firm’s investors, including Google Ventures and Lux Capital Management, share this vision of the commercial potential. Indeed, Lux partner Bilal Zuberi told Bloomberg that Veo could one day be worth tens of billions of dollars.
A prototype of its product will be rolled out to select customers in May. Veo would not disclose any further details, but it’s confident the pick-up will increase dramatically as the technology proves itself.
Sobalvarro said Veo’s technology is a long way off making machines sentient beings, but he does liken its capability to a human working with a trained animal. A bit like a farmer using a horse to plough a field or a dog to round up cattle.
“If we believed we were making conscious machines, that would open up a whole new set of ethical problems. But we’re nowhere near doing that. People conjecture about ways that machines could be conscious, but no one has ever demonstrated it or given good reason to think that they are,” he said.
“When we say our technology enables robots to perceive, it’s in the same way a Venus flytrap perceives. The robots that use our tech are like simple animals. We want them to treat humans in the same way draft animals treat farmers.”
Convincing customers of this capability, and of the technology’s safety, will be Veo’s big task when it goes to market in May.
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