New Companies Challenge Notion of ‘What is a Robot’?
The eyeball test or the adage “I’ll know it when I see it” can apply to many things, and certainly robotics falls into this category. Looking at a toaster, I know it’s not a robot looking at SoftBank’s Pepper, I know it’s a robot.
But more and more of late, devices we might have called either appliances or just “machines” have begun to add the term “robot” to their descriptions. Whether it’s done for marketing purposes, or their designers have different ideas about what makes a robot a robot, is up for debate.
Example #1: Sushi robots
AUTEC is the company behind Sushi Robots, which makes commercial robotic sushi machines. Designed to assist sushi chefs and business owners, the machines allow for the ability to create non-traditional dishes, such as sushi burritos, sushi pizzas, and sushi tacos, but also provides the ability for restaurants, educational institutions and grocery stores the ability to create sushi that can’t be fulfilled with human labor.
“We’ve designed our robots to sense the condition of the rice grains, and every movement throughout it is based on producing the best quality sushi rice, rice sheets, and rice balls, with minimal supervision of a human once the preference is programmed,” said Taka Tanaka, CEO and President of AUTEC. “For example, we have four robots that form the sushi rice and each has a temperature-controlled hopper, a container that holds the sushi rice before it’s formed into sheets and balls. The hopper monitors the sushi rice temperature, and maintains it at the ideal sushi rice temperature of 185-degrees F.”
The devices have also been designed to sense the condition of the rice’s consistency level, and then control the speed and pressure accordingly to create the perfect air-to-rice ratio, Tanaka said. “To achieve this, our team in Japan built measuring devices to calculate the size, shape, and stickiness of the sushi rice, rice balls, and sheets, and maintains a library of this data for each sushi robot.”
In addition, embedded sensors assist with keeping production consistent, and also monitor the operations for easier troubleshooting for chefs.
The company’s robots first started during a sushi boom in the 1980s, with the invention of kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) in Japan. “During this boom, our company had a home use sushi maker on the market, and a department store requested for our company to create a commercial version so they could keep up with their sushi demand,” Tanaka said. “In America, we’re now seeing history repeat itself with sushi booms and creating the need for sushi robots to keep up with demand.”
He said most sushi chefs react with a mixture of “fascination and amazement with skepticism” the first time they see the robots in action, but then are generally impressed that a desktop robot could produce the delicately made sushi. “That’s not to say there are traditional sushi chefs who do not believe a robot has a place in a sushi restaurant,” Tanaka said. “However, with food technology becoming widely available and accepted, the latter opinion is becoming less and less.”
Like many industries these days, there is a labor shortage that restaurants and grocery stores are facing when it comes to sushi chefs. “Cities that are not densely populated tend to have a small pool of professionally trained sushi chefs to choose from,” Tanaka said. In addition, “some businesses simply cannot afford a professional sushi chef, who has to go through a rigorous training of 11 years minimum. As in most restaurant businesses, to train a novice chef to acquire the knowledge of food preparation and creation takes time and money. Businesses also face the possibility of losing these chefs soon after their training, and the executive chef no longer has the support they need.”
He added that many businesses and educational institutions would like to add sushi to their menu, but might not have enough demand to hire a full-time, professional sushi chef. The company’s robots are also useful for mass production of food facilities or events, as they can produce up to 450 sushi rolls per hour on the low end, and between 2,400 up to 5,200 rice balls per hour in some cases, Tanaka said.
Example #2: Briggo coffee barista robot
At first glance, the kiosk of Briggo looks like a giant coffee vending machine, but company officials said there’s a lot of robotics and software behind the kiosk. With locations in airports and convention centers in the Austin, Texas, and Houston area, the company said the “coffee robot” is more than just an old-fashioned vending machine where you push a button coffee is poured into a paper cup.
“We have the ability to make multiple drinks at once, we have the patent that no one else can do that,” said Jonathan Benjamin, vice president of business development at Briggo. “Every single drink is made from scratch – every single cup has beans that are ground fresh for that particular cup. You can specify the ingredients and calibrate it with either a handheld app or on a touch screen to your exact specifications, whether you want it sweeter, hotter, or ice, for example.”
Benjamin said the robotics are different than other devices that “basically substitutes a human just pushing buttons on a vending machine where liquid is poured through flavorings, and then a robot arm just grabs the cup and delivers it to the customer. We have the robotics that make every single drink from scratch, and it’s really remarkable.”
The company’s approach to personalization is helping to drive the development of the robotics. “We believe that perfect is personal,” the company says on its website. “It’s something as unique as each person and as unique as each bean. Perfect lies in the differences, not in the similarities of a one-size-fits-all world… We think perfect coffee requires the same level of care, precision, and heart.”
Example #3: Ripcord digital imaging robot
Ripcord calls itself “the world’s first robotic digitization company”, developing digital imaging robots that can “quickly convert unstructured content trapped on paper into discoverable, analyzable and manageable information.” It’s like a giant, automatic scanner, but with a robotic arm and the ability to scan at 1,000 DPI at “record-breaking speeds.”
The company’s latest robots, which launched in February, feature more sheet detectors, cameras and laser measurements than earlier versions, combining more than 50 sensors “to enable unattended operation and ensure leading security and quality,” the company said. The automatic digitization of paper records can now support new types of documents, including extra-long format well logs, often longer than 25 feet, which are used extensively in the oil and gas sector.
Based in Hayward, Calif., the company has raised more than $65 million as it looks to transform the $25 billion records management industry through its robots that scan, index and categorize paper records, making them searchable through the cloud and integrating into existing enterprise systems. Based on manual processes that require things like staple removal and orientation on a scanner, Ripcord said its robots can perform much faster than human workers tasked with digitizing paper records.
So are these robots?
The typical notion of a robot that looks like a human, or a mobile platform on wheels that moves around without a driver, will continue to change as technologies advance to help automate processes. While these and other companies produce devices that blur the line between “appliance,” “machine” and “robot”, each of them are automating tasks or addressing labor shortage issues and solving problems for companies, which is what all good technology should do.
So yeah, let’s call all of these robots, and let’s get started on my robot toaster.