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Will This San Diego Company’s Robot Take Jobs From Janitors?

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

San Diego-based Brain Corp is rolling out an automated vehicle that can clean floors without a human driver.

Transcript

You've heard of self-driving cars. But what about a self-driving mop?

San Diego-based Brain Corp is rolling out an automated vehicle that can clean floors without a human driver. Soon, their robot could be mopping floors at grocery stores or office buildings. But according to robotics experts and Brain Corp executives, human janitors probably don't have to worry about this robot taking their jobs.

In Brain Corp's Sorrento Valley warehouse, the new floor cleaning bot is guiding itself through the aisles of a fake grocery store. This is a big machine. It looks more like a John Deere lawnmower than a Roomba. If it makes a wrong move, it could do some serious damage. That's why it beeps every time it turns a corner — to let anyone nearby know that it's coming through.

During one recent test, a child-sized mannequin blocked the robot's path. The kid wouldn't move, so the robot waited, visually assessed the situation, then slowly curved around the kid. Now it could safely proceed to clean up the mess in aisle three.

"We created a small area here just so we can test our machines," said Brain Corp CEO Eugene Izhikevich, a former academic who worked in the field of computational neuroscience.

He said this realistic mock-up of a retail environment helps Brain Corp's engineers thoroughly test the robot. "Not only just to test how it navigates in this space, but also, what happens if somebody jumps in front of it suddenly?"

Izhikevich said getting the robot to clean floors is the easy part. Making sure it never hurts anyone is hard.

"We have the same constraint as self-driving cars," he said. "It has to navigate and be not only safer than machines operated by humans. It has to be 100 percent safe.”

Brain Corp doesn't actually make this floor cleaning vehicle. The manually driven RS26 is made by another company, International Cleaning Equipment. Brain Corp makes the system that helps this vehicle learn how to clean a store from a human driver, so it can later do the job on its own.

"We inserted our technology to replace the human driver with artificial intelligence," said Izhikevich. "Think of it as we're replacing the person with a software driver."

Brain Corp calls that software driver EMMA. It’s short for Enabling Mobile Machine Automation, but it’s also a conveniently human name. And Brain Corp calls EMMA a she, not an it.

"She is the driver, the person who is responsible for the safe operation of this machine," Izhikevich said.

Brain Corp grew out of Qualcomm Inc., a company that doesn’t make smartphones but does make the chips that power them. Brain Corp is aiming to do the same thing for robots. Izhikevich said he'll leave it to other companies to make things like forklifts, wheelchairs and pallet jacks. What Brain Corp wants to do is make the "brains" that turn those human-operated machines into autonomous robots.

The EMMA-driven floor cleaning vehicle is the first commercial robot powered by Brain Corp. She has already been tested in a Jimbo's grocery store, and Brain Corp said a so-far unnamed major company has signed a three-year contract to use EMMA in their offices.

But Izhikevich said EMMA won't take jobs away from janitors. She’ll just help them do their jobs better.

"We are automating only the simplest, the most boring or the dullest part of their job. And there are other tasks they need to do which we cannot automate," he said. That would include tasks like cleaning bathrooms or shelves.

Henrik Christensen, director of UC San Diego's Contextual Robotics Institute, also said human janitors shouldn't panic about EMMA taking their job in the immediate future, because they already do so much more than floor cleaning. And he said if robots like EMMA can't take a human worker's job and do it for less money, employers may not want to bring them into their companies at all.

Christensen said Brain Corp isn't the first company to show that floor cleaning can be automated. He said in order to succeed where others have failed, Brain Corp needs to prove that their robot can do the job at very low cost.

When it comes to janitors, Christensen said, "The hard part is that most of these people are paid minimum wages. So actually you have to come up with a very cheap, cost-effective solution."

If Brain Corp has created a cost-competitive robot, Christensen said that would be a big deal. But he said EMMA's $40,000 price tag — which includes the machine itself plus three years of automation services — may be too high.

"This is really hard," he said. "So I'm sort of the skeptic. This could be a breakthrough, but I want to see it before I believe it."

Izhikevich said companies will start to see savings if they use EMMA an hour an a half or more each day. Plus, they won't have to worry about EMMA quitting or calling in sick.

Izhikevich admits there is still one thing a human worker may be able to do better than EMMA: command respect. He does worry that people encountering EMMA in the real world may be tempted to test her limits by jumping in front of her or otherwise messing with her.

"If there's a person present on the robot, it conveys more authority. And you're less likely to start to harass the machine because you' re harassing the person," Izhikevich said. "If there’s no person there, are you more prone to harass the machine?"

Izhikevich hopes shoppers who see EMMA coming down their aisle will treat her like they would any human worker. He hopes they'll just let her do her job.

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