Robot News & Robot Jobs
"That thing scares me!"
This comment was pronounced fervently by a man who had come into the Orchard Supply Hardware in downtown San Jose, where he crossed paths with OSHbot, the robot sales associate that resides there.
It was not clear what made the man so angry. He may have been startled to see a strange machine wheeling down the aisle. He may have been a Neo-Luddite, afraid, as many are, that the robots are coming to steal our jobs. Or perhaps he just didn't want OSHbot to run over his toes.
I was passing through the Silicon Valley with my family, on our way home from a week's vacation on the Central Coast, and I'd promised our kids that we'd go meet the OSHbot. They were rather excited about it. I've been talking up the retail droid, developed by Fellow Robots, since I first wrote a column on it back in February.
We'd arrived at the store late, less than an hour before closing, and the OSHbot was no longer on the floor. One of the associates (a human) took us to the back where two technicians from Fellow Robots were performing maintenance on one of the bots. Despite the bad timing, they were kind enough to start up the robot and bring it out for us.
The OSHbot was not fully functional at the moment, given that it was in the middle of undergoing some updates when we'd barged in. Its performance was still amazingly impressive.
We let the kids play first. My seven-year old asked where to find the nails. OSHbot brought up a list of various types of nails, with images, on its 19-inch tall front display panel. The kids chose one, and OSHbot's female voice responded that the item was located on Aisle 19, to which it added, "Would you like me to take you there?" And off we went.
The 5-foot tall, 85lb artificial intelligence on wheels moved cautiously through the store. It faintly reminded me of one of the Daleks from the classic Dr. Who series, only slower and without the intimidating retro-sci-fi laser gun. It got somewhat confused when my four-year-old daughter stepped in front of it, and stopped in its path rather than run into her, then turned until it found an unobstructed route.
While the children were having fun with their new friend, one of the technicians, Karsh Sinha, graciously answered a few of my questions:
OSHbot is a second-generation version of the NAVii, a retail robot developed by Fellow Robots. There are two OSHbots currently in operation in the United States, both at the same location in downtown San Jose, although only one is ever on the floor at a time.
One rather impressive feature of OSHbot is its heuristic capability. When first launched, although it understood English, it had trouble interpreting accents. Over time, however, its neural network based programming has adapted so that it now understands foreign and regional variations of English.
(NAVii launch at in Japan)
OSHbot also communicates in several other languages. In fact, Karsh was under a bit of jetlag, as he had just returned from Japan, where the NAVii was launched at consumer electronics chain Yamada Denki.
The Japanese are generally more open to the idea of working with robots than Americans are, he said.
In the western societies of Europe and America, it seems we are far more prone to take protectionist measures against the new. Recent trepidation about technological unemployment is a major example of this. Only a decade ago, we were still just learning to accept the reality of a globalized workforce.
This is not to say that there is nothing to fear. If you work on a retail floor, OSHbot, NAVii, and their descendants will likely take your job...someday. I've taken on the robot-job scare in past columns, and I certainly will again as the very plausible threat of mass unemployment looms ahead.
Regardless, it must be said that OSHbot is one extraordinary piece of machinery. We should at least celebrate the remarkable achievements that are being accomplished in our time. I told my children that they were witnessing a historic event. By the time they are adults, retail robots will likely be commonplace. They will someday remember having met OSHbot, one of the very first.
When the kids get their hands on my iPhone, they get a kick out of making 'potty-talk' to SIRI, with comments like, "SIRI, you're a poop-face!" I have no idea what they said to OSHbot, although the final location it led us to was...the toilets. ◼
 Fellow Robots fellowrobots.com
 Fellow Robots Press Release. "FELLOW ROBOTS PARTNERS WITH NIHON UNISYS, LTD. IN JAPAN TO INTRODUCE RETAIL ROBOT NAVIITM IN YAMADA DENKI FOR A POC."