Robots are going to steal our jobs. It’s a claim made so often it seems almost controversial to say otherwise. It’s certainly been the assumption behind much of the coverage of robotics and artificial intelligence.
However it’s also completely wrong, at least according to Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, which was founded in August 2014 from the core team of another firm called ‘Unbounded Robotics’.
Instead, she says, robots will ease the burden of manual work, freeing people up to focus on more efficient, less physically intensive tasks.
Admittedly, Wise is not a fully unbiased observer - but she may have a point. The apocalyptic estimate by Oxford Martin School academics in 2013 that 47 percent of US jobs could be automated in the next 20 years has been whittled down to just nine percent by a recent OECD study.
“If a facility shuts down it’s not because they’re hiring a robot instead of a person. Most of the time we actually can’t replace that person,” she claims.
The company makes service robots for businesses, as opposed to traditional ‘industrial robots’, which have tended to be caged, thus making them expensive and limiting their flexibility, according to Wise.
Service robots differ from industrial robots as they directly work with people, assisting them with tasks such as moving goods around distribution centres, loading goods onto trucks or taking them off conveyors.
For example, the robot will wait by an assembly station, the workers will load goods onto the robot, the robot will go away and return for the next batch, thus cutting the need for the workers to move heavy items around the facility, she explains.
“In general the jobs people in some of these distribution centres are doing is very hard. Some of them log 40 miles a day. Robots can cut that down. Some people have bad knees or flat feet or suffer pain doing their job. Robots can help. In some cases we’re actually saving people’s jobs,” according to Wise.
“Companies are motivated to increase the throughput and performance of any facility, but they also have had to reduce budgets for hiring. In the US there are 60,000 jobs unfilled in this space. So if you look at it from a corporate perspective, if a site can’t deliver they’re going to shut it down,” she says.
But are the people working in facilities as relaxed as Wise about the arrival of their new robotic colleagues?
She insists they are: “In general the perception and reception from workers has been very good. They love the robots. They call them ‘pups’.”
Fetch now has a team of 35 and is funded by three main groups: O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Shasta Ventures and SoftBank. The team managed to raise $3 million in seed funding then $20 million in a Series A round in June 2015.
Wise is reluctant to name their customers. However says they recently signed a partnership with SAP and are working across a number of verticals on tasks within ecommerce, distribution, light assembly and manufacturing – and, she says one sector that can as a surprise to the team, within data centres.
They have pilots of the 100 or so robots they have built already underway in the US, Asia and a further two trials in Europe.
The next challenge for robotics, according to Wise, will be getting people within businesses comfortable interacting with robots as part of their job.
“Robots spent a lot of time in labs and in cages. Getting them out of those cages is a major effort, but we’re getting closer thanks to tech like neural sensors and better computing power. But it also means we need robots to understand what it means to interact with people and how to make them more approachable,” she says.
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