The warehouse is the robot

Everybody likes humanoid robots (especially the Japanese, for some reason), but even nontechnical folks these days realize they’re not useful for much more than entertainment. Too tippy, too breaky, too expensive. Instead, we’re accustomed to things like robot arms bolted onto the factory floor. Much simpler. Simpler still is the Roomba, the ultimate in workaday non-tippy robots. Boring, but useful.

We’re so used to seeing robots as individuals that it’s hard to visualize the next leap: swarms of robots acting as a single entity. Kiva Systems (which I learned about from the ever interesting BotJunkie) has developed a warehouse robotics system that orchestrates the entire warehouse floor. In effect, the building is the robot. And it appears to be a genuine breakthrough.

I’m mesmerized by these images of little orange worker-blobs doing logistical origami. They’re like the fingertips of an enormous unseen brain. It reminds me once again of the ascendancy of software in all things. The warehouse effectively becomes a large physical version of computer memory. You’re seeing what amount to memory management algorithms in fully embodied glory: adaptive caching, clustering, batching.

The interviews with the smiling human workers are almost poignant. They’re talking about what an improvement this system is. Makes their job so much easier. Reduces it to almost robotic simplicity. I bet your job gets even easier when version 2 comes out.

If you’re as interested as I am in this stuff, you’ll want to watch this demo and read this article.