The AI startup Covariant and the industrial robotics company ABB will be partnering to engineer sophisticated robots that can pick up and manipulate a wide variety of objects. These robots will be used in warehouses and other industrial settings.
As Fortune reported, the industrial robotics company ABB is primarily involved in the creation of robotics for car manufacturers, but the company wants to branch out to other sectors. ABB is aiming to become involved in logistics, where its robots will be used in large warehouses, such as those run by Amazon, to manipulate items, package goods, and make shipments.
According to ABB president Sami Atiya, according to Fortune, ABB sought partners that were experienced in the creation of sophisticated computer vision applications. While the company currently uses computer vision algorithms to operate some of its robots, ABB aimed to push the envelope and create reliable, high-dexterity robots capable of maneuvering and manipulating thousands of different objects.
The company examined many different companies before settling on Covariant as its partner. Covariant is a robotics research company whose researchers come from places like OpenAI and the University of California Berekely. Covariant managed to produce the only software examined by ABB that could reliably recognize many different items without the intervention of human operators.
The computer vision and robotics applications developed by Covariant were trained with reinforcement learning. Thanks to deep neural networks and reinforcement learning, Covariant was able to create software that learns through experience and is able to reliably and consistently recognize objects once a pattern has been learned. The CEO of Covariant, Peter Chen, was interviewed by Fortune. Chen explained that as more robotics companies like ABB branch out into new industries and markets, the goal becomes the creation of robots capable of a wider variety of tasks than those currently used in many manufacturing and logistics operations. Most of the robots employed in industrial capacities are only capable of doing a handful of very specific things. Chen explained that the goal is to create robots capable of adaptation.
As a result of the partnership with Covariant, ABB will get insight into the technology that drives Covariant’s AI, and this knowledge could help them better integrate AI into the tech that powers their existing robots. Currently, Covariant is a fairly small operation with only a handful of robots in full-time operational status, spread out across industries like the electronics industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the apparel industry. However, its collaboration with ABB could cause it to see substantial growth.
The partnership between Covariant and ABB highlights the increasing role of AI startups in the robotics field. Other examples of AI startups collaborating with robotics companies includes the Japanese corporation IHI establishing a partnership with the AI startup Osaro. The joint collaboration also concerned the use of robots to grasp and manipulate objects.
While there is currently a lot of focus on robots automating away human jobs, in some industries there simply aren’t enough humans to do those jobs, to begin with. A recent report about the logistics sector estimates that over half of all logistics companies will face staff shortages over the course of the next five years. There will be a particular shortage of warehouse workers over the next half-decade. The report suggests that causes of the labor shortage within the logistics industry are falling unemployment rates, long hours, tedious work, and low wages.