In the latest sign that low-skill jobs are doomed to the inevitable, detrimental effects of technological advancements, particularly in era of politicians relentlessly fighting for higher minimum wages, an online grocer in Britain, Ocada, has debuted a prototype of a robotic arm that can pick fruit off an assembly line just like a human worker. Per a report from BBC, the fruit and vegetable picker is part of a five-year, EU-funded collaboration between five European universities and Disney, called Soma (Soft Manipulation).
Currently, all of Ocado's customer orders are bagged on an assembly line at a warehouse in Andover, Hampshire by 1,000s of human hands. But that may be all about to change as Ocado's technology looks to combine it's robotic human hand with computer vision and the ability to actually pick fruit and vegetables according to ripeness.
"People have tried suction cups, robot hands with three fingers... What we are trying to do is to actually mimic the human hand."
"The gripper is based on air pressure, which controls the movement of the robotic fingers.
"What we are trying to do is combine computer vision - being able to recognise products by looking at them - with the control aspect which is the gripping aspect."
At the moment, only the gripper is being demonstrated but ultimately the robot will learn to distinguish fruit ripeness through machine learning.
It will also be able to pick other items which require different care - such as wine bottles and detergent.
"Fruit and vegetables are the hardest to pick," said Mr Voica.
And here is a look at the developing technology in action:
And while the robotic hand is still under development, Ocado told TechCrunch that it is already being tested in a replicated warehouse and will soon be rolled out for live use in it's Andover facility.
To manipulate different items without damaging them, Ocado’s new robotic arm uses a gripper that is anthropomorphic, or takes the form of the human hand. Dubbed the RBO Hand 2, this element has flexible rubber “fingers,” and uses pressurized air to move them and enable safe, gentle handling of groceries. Researchers at the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB) developed the soft robotic hand, originally. Other types of robotic grippers out there use suction to pick apples, or a ball filled with sand-like material to physically grasp metal parts.
Ocado has already been testing the robot hands in a replicated production warehouse, to figure out if they’re ready for real world use. The answer is now yes. Clarke tells TechCrunch, “We will begin to gradually deploy this at our Andover warehouse, where in due course, [the gripper] will start picking a meaningful fraction of the range of 48,500 items we ship out to customers.” The company will begin the roll out slowly, recording the results of tests in the real world environment. It will still be some time before Ocado customers get a back packed up by SoMa Ocado RBO Hands.
Of course, it's easy to imagine how such technology can be used to replace millions of low-skilled tasks across a variety of industries, once again highlighting the headwinds facing international labor markets for decades to come.
Do you see what happens, Bernie? Do you see what happens, Bernie, when you artificially raise minimum wage and make capital projects way more attractive? This is what happens, Bernie.