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Humanoid robot takes a retail job, but not one any store clerk wants to do

You want to take our place? Welcome to the real world, pal

In January, at a Mark's apparel store outside Vancouver, Canada, a Sanctuary AI robot successfully performed assorted retail tasks that would normally be done by human workers.

The humanoid machine labored under the guidance of a human worker, so no jobs were harmed in the making of the moment, and robot-wrangling roles, born from venture capital, were sustained.

During a week-long pilot test, the store, owned by retail chain Canada Tire Corporation (CTC), saw its mechanical intern handle 110 different retail-related activities in the front and back of the store. These included picking and packing merchandise, sales floor replenishment, cleaning, tagging, labeling, store display compliance, and folding – tasks that previously had been demonstrated only in a Sanctuary AI lab set up to mirror the store.

A Sanctuary AI robot works in a retail store

Welcome to working life, bud ... Sanctuary AI's robot in a retail store. Source: Sanctuary AI

Geordie Rose, co-founder and CEO of Sanctuary AI, said in a statement on Tuesday that the company's general purpose robot performed "many necessary but rudimentary tasks that people note finding unsatisfying or unfavorable" and expressed enthusiasm with the results.

One of the commonly cited goals for AI systems is to handle routine tasks so human workers can be freed to take on more demanding, creative tasks.

Cari Covent, VP of data, analytics and AI for CTC, in a statement said just that: "With the Mark’s pilot, we were able to focus human resources on higher-value and more meaningful work, like customer service and engagement."

Critics of these systems often argue that the ulterior motive of automation is to free companies from costly, demanding employees.

But in this instance, the human worker has simply been moved from behind the counter to behind the keyboard: The robot was teleoperated by a human minder. Rose did not say whether the robot pilot found picking, packing, and tagging unsatisfying.

It's not clear whether the Mark's robot would be economical if deployed permanently. Asked to explain how much the robot cost to operate, Ben Reed, chief marketing officer at Sanctuary AI, in an email said, "Our model is focused on providing labor as a service to customers. The hourly pricing varies from business to business and the complexity of the tasks needing to be performed."

Covent told The Register in an email, "Canadian Tire Corporation has invested in cutting-edge technology, including robotics, for many tasks across its businesses. Our partnership with Sanctuary AI and this specific pilot work has validated the need to continue to evolve our investment in robotics and automation to allow our employees to focus on higher-value work."

Sanctuary AI is a Vancouver-based robotics firm that aspires "to create the world's first human-like intelligence in general-purpose robots that will help us work more safely, efficiently, and sustainably, helping to address the labor challenges facing many organizations today."

Eventually, the company wants its robots to operate on their own, based on a common-sense model of the world. But getting there demands human guidance.

"One of the key elements of our approach is learning from demonstration, where the demonstration examples are provided by a human in the loop control paradigm called analogous teleoperation," the company explains. "This control style outfits a person in a thing we call a pilot rig, which transmits the sense data from the robot to the person, and converts that person’s actions into actions the robot performs."

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In its quest to create autonomous robots, Sanctuary AI is starting with humanoid machines operated by people and technology from various partners. These include: Cycorp, maker of the Cyc machine reasoning platform; Apptronik, a make of robots designed to operate with and around people; CSM, an AI-assisted environment for coding 3D applications; Contoro, a maker of teleoperation rigs; Haptx, a maker of industrial haptic gloves; and others.

Asked about the challenges of creating a robot capable of operating on its own, Reed replied, "There are two grand scientific challenges that needed to be overcome in order to create this technology. First, we needed to create a general-purpose robot with the same form and function as a person. We have placed a great deal of emphasis on developing the hands. Given that more than 98 percent of all work requires the dexterity of the human hand, one can’t really create a humanoid robot without human-like hands."

"The second grand scientific challenge is understanding the human mind well enough to build one in a machine to be able to operate the general-purpose robot remotely. In addition to the deployment news, we also published a blog that provides more detailed information about both the hardware and the software here."

The effect robots have on employment is complicated and not necessarily easy to foresee. A recent research paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at how industrial robots affected companies and workers in the Netherlands from 2009-2020. It found companies adopting robots realized benefits while competitors that did not suffered; and among workers, those directly affected who were performing routine tasks saw wages decline while others saw indirect benefits arising from hiring that followed increased productivity.

Reed told The Register, "Our goal is to improve the quality of the work experience overall, making work safer, more efficient, and more sustainable. We see our technology being used to assist people with difficult or dangerous tasks, create new jobs (such as robot pilot, supervisor, and technician), bring new opportunities to those who might be less capable of physical work, and reduce the impact of labor shortages around the world. In the US alone, there were more than 11 million unfilled job vacancies."

Covent said, "We have seen great success in using robotics across Canadian Tire Corporation’s group of companies. Utilizing Sanctuary AI’s general-purpose robots in our retail environment has enabled us to focus human resources on higher-value and more meaningful work, like customer service and engagement. And at the same time, we can reliably fill some positions that we have difficulties attracting and retaining people to perform, such as overnight e-commerce merchandise picking and packing."

Asked what employees think about their robot coworker, Covent relayed several comments. One employee, we're told, said, "I think this technology will benefit Mark's and its subsidiaries by streamlining a lot of things from human error such as during inventory... With a robot, I think there will be less error in things like counting items and streamlining a lot of duties."

Another answered, "The way technology is advancing, this is going to be a normal thing. Even for us having it in the store for a week, it seems normal. I never in my lifetime thought I would see something like this so I think it's just going to become something that is normal." ®

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