The rise of the machines seems a bit closer at hand now that we are battling the pandemic.
Not the humanoids that are the stuff of science fiction that ostensibly, one day, will do our bidding (and, depending on who you read, perhaps conspire against us).
Picture, instead, fleets of utilitarian machines, squat, careful and not at all threatening, rolling through retailers’ aisles, hospital wings and other avenues of everyday human life.
They’re being designed to tackle a wealth of mundane tasks — even dangerous ones — with a thoroughness that most humans cannot match.
For businesses, the coronavirus has seemingly sharpened focus on two things: cleanliness and costs.
At the risk of stating the obvious, as businesses spanning retail, groceries, restaurants and a host of others reopen, consumers will likely tiptoe back only if they know it’s safe to do so.
We may even be headed into an age where businesses will be certified according to health standards.
At the same time, these firms are grappling with an economic landscape that demands a close eye be kept on margins.
The stage is set for increased deployment of Intelligence of Things (IoT)-enabled, autonomous robots to keep aisles and backrooms safe and clean, and even help streamline getting goods on the shelves.
Brain Corp. focuses on providing original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) with the ability to design and manufacture robots deployed in retail environments, scrubbing floors.
The robots have been deployed in Walmart stores, Kroger’s locations, the Mall of America and other locations. The company said late last month it had raised $36 million in Series D funding, led by returning investor SoftBank Vision Fund I and a series of new investors, such as ClearBridge Investments and Satwick Ventures.
As for the robots themselves, retailers are becoming increasingly comfortable with bringing them on board.
Brain had estimated that in recent weeks, retailers have been using the scrubbers 13 percent more than they were at the beginning of the quarter.
And as Izhikevich said, in retail (and beyond), the push toward automated and efficient cleaning needs “AI, brains and robots.”
As he noted of Brain’s focus on software-powered artificial intelligence (AI) and automated retail, “we're looking at this from the pure technology perspective. We're trying to focus on something which is possible to do with existing technology and something that will create a good business … And suddenly this became ‘sexy.’ It became essential.”
In terms of mechanics, the BrainOS-powered floor scrubbers are first directed by store associates to map a route during an initial training ride. Then, the employee presses a button to activate autonomous cleaning. Through the use of multiple sensors to scan its surroundings for people and obstacles, the robot proceeds along its route and tasks with efficiency — and above all, safety.
"Our software creates the same functionality as the most experienced operator," Izhikevich said.
He noted too, that Brain has pilot programs in place with as-yet unnamed firms, focused on delivery robots that bring boxes of goods from the back of the store to the front of the store, which can cut down on restocking efforts.
Proof Of Performance
By handling the data and analytics through the OS platform and cloud-based systems that automate the robots, Izhikevich said, Brain Corp. can provide what he called “proof of performance.”
Retailers and other enterprises can report to their customers how often parts of their stores have been cleaned (and even how thoroughly) — translating into increased consumer confidence.
For restaurants then, as Izhikevich said, “robot technology can assure customers that [operators] did everything possible to ensure that the space is perfect."
He contended that we are nearing a tipping point in robot technology to be more widely used in retail.
That’s because many firms look to Walmart (where the scrubbers have already been adopted) as an example and typically act as fast followers when eyeing the retail giant’s new business practices.
The customer demand for clean shopping environments will drive demand for robots — because after all, customers drive companies’ top and bottom lines.
The robot tech model is not confined to commerce, said Izhikevich, although the technology acceptance models (TAMs) are sizable. He estimated that cleaning represents an $18 billion a year market; deliveries another $40 billion.
Other sectors that can benefit from the deployments include the education and healthcare verticals. Schools want and need to reopen, but parents, teachers and students will want to be assured of stringent standards of cleanliness.
Similarly, healthcare practitioners are constantly monitoring and doing battle against hospital-acquired infections, so data tied to disinfecting efforts is critical.
Looking ahead, he said that AI-powered, IoT-connected machines on wheels can be used across other settings in public places, such as conveying patients from parking lots to medical labs or traveling from gate to gate to make a connecting flight in the airport.
Although there may be speculation that the deployment of the scrubbers may take work away from employees and displace them, Izhikevich countered that even as the robots perform essential tasks — disinfecting and cleaning — workers have the chance to pivot to other value-added tasks that cannot be done by machine.
That includes spending time with customers (when they return).
To get a sense of how it all can play out, Izhikevich related to the Webster the story of one retailer’s employee, who, with the aid of a Fitbit, has estimated she walks miles each workday, keeping aisles clear, pushing carts and restocking items.
Deploying BrainOS-powered robots has helped her firm pivot and send her to the cosmetics counter where she’s been able to forge lasting relationships with customers. Those types of relationships are valuable to any customer-facing firm, and they will be available after the pandemic fades into memory.
Countering claims of those who envision the robots becoming “employee of the month” after displacing workers, Izhikevich said automation allows the employee to shine.
“Now, that employee does not have to spend their time doing something boring and tedious,” he told Webster, adding that “instead they get to do something more exciting.”