- Amazon held a conference this month in Las Vegas dedicated to robots and AI.
- Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was there, inspecting the menagerie of droids on display.
- The show provided a valuable look at how advanced robots have become – and some of the shortcomings that need to be fixed before they become ubiquitous.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
From June 3 to 7, a couple thousand people landed in Las Vegas to get a peek at how Amazon uses robots and AI tech in its business and to mingle with some of the leading robotics and AI experts.
It was Amazon’s first Machine learning, AI, Robotics, and Space conference, known as re:MARS. The conference was born out of an invite-only conference hosted by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos every year in Palm Springs.
The private party still takes place, and it’s the conference that’s yielded some iconic photos, like Bezos appearing in a giant exoskeleton a few years ago. This year he famously played beer pong with a robot.
But the public version of the conference, where Bezos also made an appearance, was every bit as eye-opening. It also included celebrities, keynote talks from experts, and lots and lots of robots.
Take a look.
The first realisation that you’ve entered the world of Amazon MARS is at the hotel where this hotel robot was wandering around.
The second sign was the Blue Original capsule in the lobby of the conference area, which was open for tours.
Blue Origin is a space exploration company founded by Bezos, but separate from Amazon. It has shown off its capsules before, such as the video that showed Mannequin Skywalker’s ride aboard the Crew Capsule 2.0 as the space company gets ready to fly humans.
Amazon Re:MARs included an expo that was, naturally full of robots, too. A lot of universities were showing off their wares and many of them are working on robots that can work in warehouses, moving boxes. Here’s the UNLV robotics research team showing off their warehouse robot.
UNLV was also showing off a robotic arm that can move boxes.
Robots moving boxes was a big topic at the show and it’s harder than it looks. In order to lift and move things, a robot has to adjust its balance to accommodate the weight of the object it’s lifting, for one thing.
For another thing, robots are still not reliably good at grasping different kinds of objects. They struggle with slippery items or with tiny things like paperclips, according to a keynote talk by Ken Goldberg, engineering professor, UC Berkeley and chief scientist, Ambidextrous Robotics.
Goldberg points out that Bill Gates named robot dexterity as one of the 10 breakthrough technologies he expects in 2019.
But it points to why Amazon is still employing 300,000 people in its warehouses, a statistic shared on stage by Amazon Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s global consumer operations.
The star of the expo was a tactile touch device built by HaptX and Shadow Robot. When CEO Jeff Bezos roamed the conference floor, this is the demo he did.
A special pair of haptic gloves allows the wearer to control a separate robotic arm and hands. Jeff Bezos described the sensation of controlling the robotic hands as “weirdly natural.”
The device also transmits human touch. Stroke the finger tip of the robot’s hands and the human will feel that stroke in the haptic gloves.
Amazon’s billionaire CEO was not the only celebrity in attendance. The show attracted other famous guests like basketball legend Magic Johnson …
Today I got to check something off my bucket list when I had the chance to meet and chat with Founder and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos! Thank you for inviting me to the 1st annual Amazon re:Mars conference. I learned about a new drone, robotics, & all of the new Alexa features. pic.twitter.com/NDB3bqiuKJ
– Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) June 6, 2019
and Adam Savage. Savage was speaking at the show, too, discussing his new book. He often attends the invite only conference in Palm Springs as well.
– Elio Capelati Jr (@eliocapelati) June 6, 2019
And the show was filled with oddly unsettling things like this robotic leg laying on a treadmill.
It’s an open source robotic leg, a project showed off by a professor at the University of Michigan and a director from the Center for Bionic Medicine.
Then there was this creepy spider-looking robot.
Some robots were not so much terrifying as they were just plain annoying.
This one, for example, functions as sort of mobile iPad and it insisted on following me around. It can access Alexa, make video calls and do other such stuff.
This transport robot can carry objects around (but was empty and just roaming around a contained area).
Amazon’s robots, in particular, were everywhere. Amazon uses 200,000 robots in its warehouses, execs at the show said.
Amazon’s robots don’t have arms and legs. They are used to transport products from shelves to the areas where items will be packed and shipped.
Amazon got into warehouse robots when it bought a company called Kiva back in 2012. But it is inventing new robots all the time. New models can carry heavier boxes and the tops can be outfitted for different functions.
Amazon’s newest crop of warehouse robots will soon work with the autonomous driving technology it gained from its recent acquisition of Canvas Technology.
These new robots will eventually be able to roam an entire warehouse campus, even outside, instead of being confined to the strict robotics boundary used in warehouses today, Amazon execs say.
Amazon was showing off its “Scout” robot, too, which Amazon envisions as rolling around neighbourhoods delivering packages.
Here’s the promo video Amazon showed for Scout. Notice that Scout doesn’t try to manoeuvre over front steps.
Using robots in warehouses lets Amazon stack inventory shelving closer together and higher, packing more inventory into every warehouse. Human workers wear these vests that help the robots to “see” them and stay safely out of a human’s way.
But the show stopper was the new Amazon drone revealed at the show. It will eventually deliver packages by air, as part of Amazon’s Prime Air program.
Here’s another view of the drone as it looks from above. Amazon execs said they hope to start delivering packages with the drones soon but wouldn’t say where or when.
Amazon’s drone will be self-flying thanks to an array of sensors. These sensors can detect wires, people, pets, objects and know not to land if the landing zone isn’t clear and safe, execs say.
Amazon’s cloud — Amazon Web Services — underpins all of its internal AI and much of its robotics systems. Amazon trains people to use its machine learning/AI tools for free.
It’s a program called DeepRacer where people learn the tools by training a fully autonomous 1/18th scale race car to drive around a track. Amazon then throws DeepRacer competitions. Leagues have sprouted up, complete with prizes.
The league and races were in action at re:MARS. Some cars were definitely trained better than others, driving laps around the track without going off course much.
Other robots on display were ones that are in production today like the Cruzr by Ubtech Robots. It’s used in hotels to take food and beverage but it can’t deliver them itself as its hands can’t reliably grasp objects.
Another unresolved problem: many people who see the robot think it’s funny to try and shake its hands, which tends to break the droid’s hands, a Ubtech rep said.
Canadian smart glasses company North was there showing off its custom-built glasses called Focals. These are Alexa-enabled and they project holographic images that only the wearer can see. They cost $US600 or $US800 if you want them with prescription lenses.
The Rivian electric truck was on full display too.
Amazon earlier this year led a $US700 million investment into the electric truck and SUV startup, Rivian.
Rivian is integrated with Alexa, which can do everything from manage the temperature to change the shading of the moon roof. The truck will be in production in 2020 and is scheduled to be available by 2021, a rep said.
Inside, it features “vegan” leather upholstery (aka pleather) …
and has little touches like a flashlight embedded in the door…
… and a compartment for skis or golf-clubs. Electric plugs and a bike rack sensor in the back that will alert you if someone tries to steel your bike AND take a picture of the would-be thief.
It doesn’t have an engine so the engine compartment is a trunk. The first models are expected to cost between $US69,000 – $US80,000, depending on the battery size and options.
If electric trucks aren’t your thing, here’s an Alexa-enabled electric bike by Cybic.
Amazon also showed off many Alexa smart home products, too, like its Amazon smart plug.
Plug this electric tea kettle into the Amazon smart plug and then you can turn it on and off by voice command.
The Amazon Alexa smart home team also invented their own $US60 Amazon Basics Alexa microwave. You can tell Alexa to defrost something, say two pounds of chicken, or reheat your coffee.
There’s also the Alexa Roomba robot vacuum. This one, the i7, has a docking station robot that also empties itself automatically. It costs about $US1,100.
Or the Alexa iRobot Braava Mop, which will wash the floor. You can use Alexa to tell it to clean up a spill in the dining room.
Alexa is powering everything these days from a Schlage smart door lock …
to a Moen Alexa-enabled shower, which you can turn on with voice command.
Intel is also working on a smart mirror, which can look at your face, decipher your mood and have Alexa play you appropriate music.
The evening party was Amazon-robot themed as well. It took place at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway NASCAR track. Some of the most famous Battlebots fought in the re:MARS Challenge, broadcast live on Twitch.
Here’s the replay.
And one of the biggest demos at the show took place at the party, too: a huge and unwieldy exoskeleton called the Furrion Exo-Bionics Mech.
It’s 15-feet tall and 8,000 pounds and looks like the Tarantula robot in the 1990’s steampunk film Wild, Wild West. The Mech’s pilot walked it over a concrete barrier. Had he missed and fallen, he could have been seriously hurt. Take a look:
All in all, its clear that robots are coming, but they really aren’t quite ready to infiltrate our lives just yet.
Artificial intelligence really isn’t that smart yet. People are still working on how to train machines and how to make AI technology easier for the average programmer to use.
Today’s robots still can’t do things like climb stairs very well, balance when picking up heavy objects or grasp tiny or odd shaped items.
But some of the smartest people in the world are working on making self-learning robots and other machines. It is all definitely coming and Amazon is already using this tech in its warehouse and delivery operations.
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