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Shelf Actualization


If you are old enough, you may remember that, for a time, almost every year was the year that home video was going to take off. Except it never was, until VHS tape machines appeared. We saw something similar with personal computers. Nowadays, we keep hearing about the home robot, but it never seems to fully materialize or catch on. If you think about it, it could be a problem of expectations.

What we all want is C3PO or Rosie the Robot that can do all the things we don’t want to do. What we usually get is something far less than that. You either get something hideously expensive that does a few tasks or something cheap that is little more than a toy.

Labrador Systems is trying to hit the middle ground. While no one would confuse their Caddie and Retriever robots with C3PO, they are useful but also simple, presumably to keep the cost down which are expected to cost about $1,500. The robots have been described as “self-driving shelves.” You can watch a video about the devices below.

Next Stop

Essentially, the robot learns a number of stops and can move between stops using voice commands or an app. One of the robots can move up and down and pick up trays. The other just moves from point to point carrying whatever you put on it as long as it weighs less than 25 pounds.

The robots can avoid obstacles using IR and optical sensors, so they aren’t just running a preprogrammed course. They also take care of charging themselves.

It might seem like a first-world problem to want a robot to carry two cups of coffee from the kitchen to the living room. However, for the elderly or people with limited mobility due to injury or illness, having a robot helper could be a big boost to their quality of life. Sure, you can get a human helper, but that’s become an expensive proposition. A $1,500 robot that works all day, every day is a bargain.

Faster Food

Rolling shelf robots might really take off in the service industry. For example, people generally don’t want to work in fast food. That’s why there’s typically a huge turnover and you don’t really expect to see a motivated kid at the burger joint register who’s building a career. We’ve already seen robots that can work the grill. Now, rolling shelves are serving food to customers, too.

This isn’t a one-off stunt, either. That particular restaurant is in Boston, but they are doing something similar in Dallas, too.

Not C3PO

We have no doubt that we will get to C3PO if not Commander Data, but for today it does seem like the smart money is to pick something annoying but somewhat easy and focus on that. Industrial robot arms, for example, have been very successful. Robot vacuums are hardly brainy, but they do what they do well enough and are popular. You even see industrial versions plying the aisles at many big box stores. It wouldn’t be entirely strange to see the same thing bringing you your burger.

Sci-Fi Aside: What About the Jobs?

Science fiction has worried about what will happen to jobs when computers or robots take them all over. A lot of future fiction posits a system where money isn’t a thing or there is some universal basic income. Maybe robots will actually be what gets us there.

Imagine if corporations could not own robots legally. Instead, they would lease them from workers. When you are born you are assigned a robot. Not that you’d take possession of it any more than a futures trader that buys pork bellies expects to receive a truckload of bacon. The lease on the robot pays for maintenance, replacement insurance, and your basic income. You can save some money and buy more robots or more valuable robots to generate more income. It would be like the stock market, in a way.

On the other hand, maybe robots can do the jobs no one wants to do. Humans could be free to invent, create, solve problems, and be there for other people — all things robots are not great at doing, at least in the foreseeable future.

Or maybe that’s a lot of utopia for a rolling shelf to carry, but we’ve got to start somewhere. So what else is out there waiting for us to automate? Think small. Think ordinary. What’s stopping you?

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