Startup News & Analysis

Four wholesome robot friends that wouldn’t dream of taking your job — plus one that tried and failed

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

robot

A Velociraptor receptionist at the Henn na Hotel in Japan.

Contrary to the apocalyptic predictions of Flight of the Conchords, the humans are not yet dead.

In fact, even as more and more functions in the workplace become automated, there is an argument that a robot-driven workplace of the future could actually allow for more creativity, and that the benefits could ultimately outweigh the downsides.

Sure, in San Francisco there are robots usurping baristas. And, yes maybe here in Australia there’s a bricklaying robot that can build a house in just three days.

But there are also automatons out there that exist purely to bring joy and convenience to our lives, whether that’s through efficiency, companionship, or simply the joy of art.

These robots are not after your job. And even if they are, they may need a few lessons in customer service first.

Robot chickens

This may sound like something from a Wallace and Gromit sketch, but Victorian agtech startup Mimictech actually creates robot chickens to reduce stress levels in chicks on commercial poultry farms.

The robo-chickens serve to sooth the chicks, decreasing mortality rates and improving feed conversion ratios, thereby reducing the amount farmers spend on feed.

Speaking at LauchVic’s Thrive conference in Geelong last month, Mimictec co-founder and chief executive Eleanor Toulmin said recent trials of the technology reduced the use of feed on a farm by 10%.

For most farmers, feed makes up 60% of their expenses, Toulmin said.

“If you’re able to write off 10 per cent of that, that goes straight to their bottom line,” she said.

“While they may not get the robot chicken part, they really get the savings part,” she added.

Art, automated

At the University of Sydney, mechanical engineering student Wenzheng Zhang has combined his two seemingly opposite passions of fine art and robotics, to create a robot that paints in the traditional Chinese style of guóhuà.

Wenzheng has been studying the ancient painting method, which uses only a paintbrush dipped in ink, since he was five years old.

The robot arm is designed to move in the same way as a human arm. And, rather than using image processing to replicate a piece of art, it uses mathematics and geometrics to mimic the creation process and to consider things such as brush size, ink, water and the paper provided.

“The purpose is to try to replicate the human thought process, such as getting the robot to focus more on how the painting starts rather than how it finishes. The robot must contemplate the canvas and effectively ‘work out’ the drawing on its own,” Wenzheng said in a statement.

Initially, the robot has been programmed to paint chickens traditionally the skill apprentice artists must master before moving on to more complicated depictions. Ultimately, Wenzheng said it will use artificial intelligence to get creative on its own.

“I’ve created a flexible program which can continue to be developed with the end goal being a program that can create a piece of art instead of simply copying existing works,” he added.

Pepper the robot companion

Brisbane startup Conpago, a graduate of the River City Labs accelerator program, announced in November 2018 it has partnered with Japanese company SoftBank to introduce a robot named Pepper into aged-care facilities.

The adorable Pepper is designed to help combat loneliness among older residents. It’s optimised to engage in conversations, and can recognise faces and expressions.

Pepper at Conpago Launch Party

Pepper enjoying a slice of cake at the Conpago launch party. Source: Supplied.

A version of the robot is already in use in aged-care facilities in Japan, as well as in libraries, banks and shops. The Aussie version, however, will integrate Conpago’s tablet tech, developed to be more intuitive for older users.

“We’ve incorporated Pepper the robot to communicate with our broader software system and create a more holistic [care] experience,” Conpago co-founder and chief executive Marley Brown told StartupSmart last year.

As adorable as it is, this is the most robot-like of all our featured robots. But, if you’re worried about fleets scooting through your nan’s nursing home, don’t be. For the time being, Peppers are being distributed on a one-per-facility basis.

“We don’t want people to be intimidated by an army of robots, but one robot becomes a focal point,” Brown says.

BionicKangaroo

Somehow, the most quintessentially Aussie of all the robots has been brought to life on the other side of the world.

This bionic kangaroo is the handiwork of German automation technology company Festo, and has been built to mimic the energy-efficient movements of the real thing.

Pneumatic inner workings allow it to recover energy mid-jump and store energy for the next take off. The robot even has rubber Achilles tendons to cushion it’s landing and absorb the kinetic energy needed for it to spring again.

Using an armband, the roo’s keepers can control it with their gestures, meaning the machine is significantly more obedient than its flesh-and-blood counterparts.

At a metre tall, when it’s standing upright, the kangarobot weighs in at just 7kg, and can jump as far as 80cm, and 40cm into the air.

A video shared by Aussie Anthony James on LinkedIn drew some criticism from commentators, some of whom questioned the usefulness or the very purpose of the machine. Others, however, hailed the robot as a prototype showcasing technologies that could be integrated into other products.

According to Festo, the kangaroo provides learnings on energy recovery in the car sector, and also combines pneumatics and electronics in a new and unique way. So, we may well see these technologies put to use elsewhere before there are bionic skippys hopping through your backyard.

Velociraptor receptionist

In Japan, one robot workforce is reportedly being slashed by more than half. According to a Business Insider report, the Henn na Hotel in Japan also known as the Robot Hotel is sacking some 50% of its automated employees, after they failed to improve efficiencies or reduce costs for the business.

The cull is likely to include the hotel’s velociraptors the robots manning the front desk.

The decision to cut down on androids, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, will see more humans taking back customer-facing and service roles, while robots used for behind-the-scenes tasks such as sorting and transporting luggage are more likely to survive.

The hotel used in-room voice assistants and a robotic concierge, however, reports suggest the capabilities of these lagged behind the likes of Alexa or Google Home.

The Wall Street Journal report even suggests one guest was woken by his electronic assistant several times during the night, when it mistook his snoring for a question.

Henn na Hotel’s website says the hotel is committed to evolution, and suggests the “mechanic yet somehow human” robot staff will “warm your heart”. However, perhaps reassuringly, it appears these particular droids have done quite the opposite, leaving their roles re-opened for living, breathing applicants.

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].