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GeekWire

Can Amazon’s robots make work safer for humans?

Bert and Ernie, Scooter and Kermit may have started out as warm and fuzzy Muppet characters, but now they’re part of Amazon’s team of warehouse robots as well.

Amazon showed off the latest members of its mechanical menagerie today in a blog post that focuses on how it’s using robotic research to improve workplace safety for its human employees.

For example, a type of robot nicknamed Ernie is designed to take boxy product containers known as totes off shelves at different heights, and then use its robotic arm to deliver the totes to warehouse employees at a standard height. The goal is to reduce the amount of reaching up or bending down that workers have to do.

“We’re known for being passionate about innovating for customers, but being able to innovate with robotics for our employees is something that gives me an extra kick of motivation each day,” Kevin Keck, worldwide director of advanced technology at Amazon, said in the blog posting. “The innovation with a robot like Ernie is interesting because while it doesn’t make the process go any faster, we’re optimistic, based on our testing, it can make our facilities safer for employees.”

Today’s inside look at the research being done at labs in the Seattle area, the Boston area and northern Italy comes in the wake of a couple of reports criticizing Amazon’s workplace safety record.

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GeekWire

Why software entrepreneurs are digging into ag tech

Farmers typically consult the calendar and the weather forecast to figure out when to plant their crops, but figuring out how to grow a tech startup focused on the farm can be a far more complex task.

The challenge can call to mind the old joke about the farmer who won the lottery. When asked how the winnings would be used, the farmer answered, “Well, I guess I’ll just keep farming until the money runs out.”

When it comes to ag tech ventures, the money isn’t running out: Last year, a Crunchbase survey found that venture capitalists were investing roughly $4 billion a year in farm-centric startups — and the flow is continuing despite the COVID-19 pandemic. So far this year, investors have put about $700 million into more than 90 ag tech ventures, according to Crunchbase’s tally.

Some of the stars of the show are Pacific Northwest entrepreneurs who found success in the software industry and are now bringing their startup savvy to the food and agriculture industry. We checked in with four founders to get a sense of how they’re cross-breeding technology with agriculture.

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GeekWire

ManipulaTHOR lends virtual robots a hand (and an arm)

You can lead a virtual robot to a refrigerator, but you can’t make it pull out a drink. This is the problem that Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI2, is addressing with a new breed of virtual robotic agent called ManipulaTHOR.

ManipulaTHOR adds a highly articulated robotic arm to the institute’s AI2-THOR artificial intelligence platform — which should provide lots more capability for testing the software for robots even before they’re built.

AI2-THOR was programmed to find its way through virtual versions of indoor environments, such as kitchens and bathrooms. It could use computer vision to locate everyday objects, but the model didn’t delve deeply into the mechanics of moving those objects. Instead, it just levitated them, as if by video-game magic.

Now AI2-THOR is getting real.

“Imagine a robot being able to navigate a kitchen, open a refrigerator and pull out a can of soda,” AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni said in a news release. “This is one of the biggest and yet often overlooked challenges in robotics, and AI2-THOR is the first to design a benchmark for the task of moving objects to various locations in virtual rooms, enabling reproducibility and measuring progress.”

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GeekWire

Robot charging system wins Europe’s seal of approval

Two of the wireless charging systems made by Seattle-based WiBotic have won safety approvals in Europe, marking what the startup’s CEO calls a major milestone.

The chargers and transmitters now have CE Mark approval, which means they meet the safety, health and environmental protection requirements for the European Economic Area. What’s more, the systems have been found to comply with the International Electrotechnical Commission’s directives for the European Union and Canada’s CSA Group standards organization.

“We also recently completed FCC approval in the U.S., so our systems are compliant with reputable regulatory agencies within many countries around the world,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters said today in a news release. “This, in turn, opens several exciting partnership and deployment opportunities for us across Europe, Canada and beyond.”

WiBotic, which was spun out from the University of Washington in 2015, has developed battery charging systems that can power up autonomous drones as well as robots on land or sea wirelessly, without human intervention. The company’s power management software, known as Commander, can work with the hardware to optimize battery use for an entire fleet of robots.

There’s even a project aimed at charging up future robots on the moon.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Machinehood’ casts humanhood in a new light

S.B. Divya has been thinking about the technologies of the future for so long, it’s hard for her to imagine living in the present.

Her debut novel, “Machinehood,” stars a super-soldier with body enhancements who packs it in to become a bodyguard for celebrities — but becomes enmeshed in an action-packed race to save the world.

Technologies ranging from human enhancement to do-it-yourself biohacking play supporting roles in Divya’s tale of 2095. And oh, if only some of those technologies were available in 2021…

“There are definitely days where I came out of the writing, and looked around and realized that I was back in the real world — and was occasionally sad about it, because there are really useful things in ‘Machinehood’ that I wish we had today,” Divya says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast.

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GeekWire

This software takes charge of charging up robots

It’s hard enough to remember to keep your smartphone charged up, so can you imagine how much harder it’d be to track the charging status of dozens of drones or robots? Now WiBotic has an app for that: a software platform that manages the battery-charging routines for mobile devices that use its wireless charging system.

Today the seven-year-old Seattle startup unveiled its first software product, an energy management package called Commander.

“Commander was developed mostly through listening and learning from our customers who were building robots, and then deploying robots, and then deploying fleets,” said Ben Waters, the company’s CEO and co-founder.

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GeekWire

Sex robots and seniors: A match made in AI heaven?

Are sex robots just what the doctor ordered for the over-65 set?

In a newly published research paper, a bioethicist at the University of Washington argues that older people, particularly those who are disabled or socially isolated, are an overlooked market for intimate robotic companionship — and that there shouldn’t be any shame over seeking it out.

To argue otherwise would be a form of ageism, says Nancy Jecker, a professor of bioethics and humanities at the UW School of Medicine.

“Designing and marketing sex robots for older, disabled people would represent a sea change from current practice,” she said today in a news release. “The reason to do it is to support human dignity and to take seriously the claims of those whose sexuality is diminished by disability or isolation. Society needs to make reasonable efforts to help them.”

Jecker’s argument, laid out in the Journal of Medical Ethics, reawakens a debate that has raged at least since a bosomy robot made her debut in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, “Metropolis.” In a 2007 book titled “Love and Sex With Robots,” computer chess pioneer David Levy argued that robot sex would become routine by 2050.

Over the past decade or so, the sex robot trade has advanced somewhat, with computerized dolls that would typically appeal to randy guys. At the same time, researchers have acknowledged that the world’s growing over-65 population may well need to turn to robotic caregivers and companions, due to demographic trends.

Jecker says sex should be part of the equation for those robots — especially when human-to-human sex is more difficult due to disabilities, or the mere fact that an older person’s parts don’t work as well as they once did. Manufacturers should think about tailoring robot partners for an older person’s tastes, she says.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

WiBotic raises $5.7M for wireless charging systems

Robot and WiBotic charger
WiBotic’s system is designed to charge up robots wirelessly. (WiBotic Photo)

Seattle-based Wibotic says it’s secured $5.7 million in fresh investment to ramp up development of its wireless charging and power optimization systems, five years after being spun out from the University of Washington.

“We’re heading into our toddler phase here,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters joked during an interview with GeekWire.

Investors in the Series A funding round include Junson Capital, SV Tech Ventures, Rolling Bay Ventures, Aves Capital, The W Fund and WRF. The latest round brings WiBotic’s total investment to nearly $9 million.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

How Amazon robotics team is tackling virus

Amazon drone
Amazon’s robotics group is developing Prime Air drones that can deliver packages, but it’s also working on projects aimed at coping with the coronavirus outbreak. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

For years, Amazon Prime Air has been working on drones that can deliver packages to customers, but now it’s also working on projects to help Amazon itself deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Brad Porter, vice president of robotics at Amazon, hinted Prime Air’s role this week in a LinkedIn posting he wrote in response to the resignation of fellow VP Tim Bray.

Bray said he quit to protest the firings of whistleblowers sounding the alarm about COVID-19 risks. (The controversy is continuing, with nine U.S. senators asking Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for more information about the firings.)

In his LinkedIn posting, Porter insisted that worker safety was a high priority at Amazon, and mentioned the efforts that his group has been making.

“We are working hard to develop and deploy additional processes and technology for a range of measures – from social distancing to contact tracing,” Porter wrote. “We are developing mobile ultraviolet sanitation. My Prime Air drones and robotics group has become an R&D lab for COVID innovation that I can’t wait to share with you. Today I reviewed a list of 72 new ideas for improvements we can make.”

We’re hearing that further information about those ideas will be coming out soon. In the meantime, Business Insider is reporting that one of Prime Air’s projects is using lab space and equipment to produce protective plastic face shields for its warehouse workers and local hospitals.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Update: ’60 Minutes’ shows Amazon’s virus-killing robot

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GeekWire

DARPA lets robots take over nuclear plant

DARPA Subterranean Challenge
 CSIRO Data61’s Brett Wood, checks the team’s Titan robot and piggyback drone just before a robot run in the Urban Circuit of DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

SATSOP, Wash. — Amid the ruins of what was meant to be a nuclear power plant, a robot catches a whiff of carbon dioxide — and hundreds of feet away, its master perks up his ears.

“I think I’ve got gas sensing,” Fletcher Talbot, the designated human operator for Team CSIRO Data61 in DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge, told teammates who were bunkered with him in the bowels of the Satsop nuclear reactor site near Elma.

Moments after Talbot fed the coordinates into a computer, a point appeared on the video scoreboard mounted on a wall of the bunker. “Hey, nice,” one member of the team said, and the whole squad broke into a short burst of applause.

Then it was back to the hunt.

The robot’s discovery marked one small step in the Subterranean Challenge, a multimillion-dollar competition aimed at promoting the development of autonomous robots to seek out and identify victims amid the rubble of an urban disaster area, or hazards hidden in the alleys of a hostile cityscape.

Get the full story on GeekWire.