‘We’ve literally run out of human beings’: Robots rise in wake of pandemic and labor shortages


Agility Robotics makes robots that may work alongside people in warehouses. (Agility Robotics Picture)

PITTSBURGH — Searching the window of the Boeing 737 this week after touchdown at Pittsburgh Worldwide Airport, gateway to one of many world’s prime robotics hubs, it was exhausting to not see irony in an in any other case atypical scene: two employees struggling to elevate heavy baggage from a conveyor belt to a trailer on the tarmac.

Later, on the airport curb, the Uber app confirmed charges surging to $95 to $125 simply to get into town, as demand outstripped accessible drivers in a spot the place the ride-hailing firm as soon as tried to pioneer autonomous autos.

The robots are right here, however they’re not but totally current in our lives. And abruptly, in lots of elements of the economic system and society, they’ll’t present up rapidly sufficient.

The pandemic and the U.S. labor scarcity are beginning to change the dialog about robotics and automation from risk to alternative — from placing jobs in danger to filling vital gaps within the workforce.

“The largest shift that has occurred from 2018 to now could be that we’ve actually run out of human beings to do the issues that we have to do,” stated roboticist Siddhartha “Sidd” Srinivasa, a professor on the College of Washington’s Allen College of Laptop Science & Engineering in Seattle who based Carnegie Mellon College’s Private Robotics Lab throughout his 18-year tenure in Pittsburgh.

That shift is giving a brand new spark to robotics engineers and entrepreneurs who’ve lengthy aspired to alter the world with their innovations and concepts.

Matthew Johnson-Roberson, director of the CMU Robotics Institute. (GeekWire Picture / Todd Bishop)

“There’s lots of work to be completed. However a lot of the dialog that society is having now pertains to issues which have been talked about in robotics for a very long time,” stated Matthew Johnson-Roberson, the brand new director of CMU’s storied Robotics Institute. “So I’m actually excited concerning the future.”

This underlying change is likely one of the key takeaways from my first few days again in Pittsburgh. GeekWire is reporting on robotics and AI over the subsequent week along side the Cascadia Join Robotics, Automation & AI convention, going down Could 2-4 in Pittsburgh. Seattle-based funding financial institution Cascadia Capital, organizer of the convention, is underwriting our impartial reporting on the subject.

For me and some different members of our group, it’s a long-awaited return to town that hosted our GeekWire HQ2 mission in February 2018. I’ve been serving because the advance scout this time, spending the previous few days in Pittsburgh to raised perceive what has occurred previously 4 years.

In fact, a pandemic occurred. However regardless of the worldwide and native financial upheaval, a brand new report from the Pittsburgh Robotics Community reveals greater than 100 firms and organizations growing robotics and automation applied sciences within the area, up from about 80 12 months in the past.

Particularly in areas comparable to e-commerce and logistics, the pandemic accelerated developments within the labor market that some main retailers and transport firms had been anticipating for a number of years, stated Joel Reed, govt director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Community.

“They have been already beginning to take a look at new applied sciences, in order that they didn’t must undergo the feasibility testing section when the pandemic hit,” Reed stated. “And now it’s turning into an crucial for these firms to outlive for them to have that degree of automation, as a result of they only can’t discover the individuals.”

However it’s not nearly backfilling roles as soon as held by human employees. Robotic methods provide the potential to free individuals up for higher-level or extra significant actions, stated Henny Admoni, an assistant professor at CMU who directs the Human and Robotic Companions (HARP) Lab.

Henny Admoni, director of CMU’s Human and Robotic Companions lab. (GeekWire Picture / Todd Bishop)

Admoni cited the instance of robotic know-how serving to individuals with disabilities to eat with out the help of a human caregiver, giving each individuals a possibility to eat collectively in a extra pure social method.

“The shorthand for that is, let robots be robots,” she stated. “Let robots take over the duties that robots are finest at. Don’t attempt to change human interplay. Attempt to make it in order that human interplay is extra doable.”

Within the meantime, examples of robotics firms addressing gaps within the workforce appear to be in every single place in Pittsburgh.

Elsewhere on Robotics Row, Aurora additionally occupies the previous Uber Superior Applied sciences constructing after buying the ride-hailing firm’s self-driving automobile unit in December 2020. A number of darkish grey Uber self-driving vehicles are nonetheless parked among the many white Aurora autos behind the constructing subsequent to the thirty first Avenue Bridge.

Aurora Innovation’s self-driving autos on Robotics Row in Pittsburgh. (GeekWire Picture / Todd Bishop)

Self-driving autos can nonetheless be noticed navigating the streets of Pittsburgh, however based mostly on my expertise over the previous few days, it’s not as frequent to see them because it was in 2018.

This week I’ve primarily noticed a handful of self-driving vehicles from Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based firm backed by buyers together with by Ford and VW.

An Argo AI self-driving automobile, considered via the window of an Uber in Pittsburgh this week. (GeekWire Picture / Todd Bishop)

Aside from the distinctive sensors and markings on self-driving autos, they stand out as a result of they go the pace restrict, and no extra.

Labor shortages apart, considerations about robots and jobs persist. One of many Uber drivers I rode with this week stated he enjoys giving the center finger to the self-driving autos that he sees on the streets — joking that he’s pleased the autonomous methods aren’t but capable of acknowledge or reply to the gesture.

[Editor’s Note: We’ll have more from our conversations with Matthew Johnson-Roberson, Joel Reed, Henny Admoni, Sidd Srinivasa, and others in the days ahead.]





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