World’s first retail store robots and other cool stuff….

by Diane Francis


SILICON VALLEY – Big ideas as well as big trees grow in this part of the world, a region with a distinctive eco-system and a GDP bigger than Switzerland’s or Ontario’s.
Catalyst for this has been the U.S. military research budgets and Stanford University. This engineering, science and technology culture has grown for decades as a result of massive infusions of money and the university’s entrepreneurial engineering bent.
Here the world is being reinvented and re-imagined by “Valley” denizens who hail from across the United States and the world too. An estimated 250,000 Canadians work here devising the cool toys and awesome apps that have transformed everything.
This month, the world’s first retail robot was rolled out in a Lowe’s Hardware store in San Jose. The five-foot robot serves as the store’s greeter, knows where every nail and gadget is located and assists people in English or Spanish. The two in-store robots then directs customers to the appropriate aisle or leads them there. If the product is missing, the “bot” requests restocking or orders the products for future delivery to the customer from another store.
The robots are new, and costly (about $150,000) but once any kinks are ironed out, developers envision hundreds or thousands will be deployed in order to provide enhanced service and inventory control in stores.
But robots are nothing new in this region. Google’s fleet of a dozen driverless, or robo-cars, ply the streets with three-foot sensor towers that “see” everything around them. Each has a human behind the steering wheel just in case but the fleet has driven 700,000 kilometers safely in the past two years, including navigating the eight tight hairpin turns on San Francisco’s Lombard Street.
The next step, next fall, will be to launch a fleet of fully autonomous, two seat, egg-shaped test cars next year that go only 25 miles per hour and will be equipped with sensors, computers and lasers to guide them to destinations specified on mobile phones by their passengers. The prototypes only had a button to stop the vehicle but California balked and will require each to have a brake and gas pedal.
Once tested and fully licensed, Google hopes to transform the transportation system in a region where traffic clogs are as common as start-ups. “On a normal operating highway, cars take up a tiny fraction of the space,” said Google co-founder Sergei Brin. “Mostly, it’s all air between you and the car in front of you, to the sides of you. Self-driving cars can chain together and use highways more efficiently.”
One New York planner estimated that four times as many cars could travel through a corridor as is currently the case, saving trillions in road and public transportation costs.
Driverless cars are being tested in several states, and countries, and Brin believes they will be available commercially by 2018. Eventually, commuters can be driven to work in vehicles with office equipment, space for clients. Driverless cars could take blind or disabled people anywhere, pick up groceries or take children to a soccer game. Not surprisingly, all major auto manufacturers are working on their own driverless version.
Robotics are just one sector being developed here. Algorithms are being applied in genetics and banking. A case in point is the Lending Club — the first of many peer-to-peer banks that went public this week – which uses mathematical formulas to match lenders with borrowers who will repay loans.
The work ethic is extraordinary here too, ironic since much of what’s going on here will destroy most traditional jobs eventually. Google has a fleet of 150 buses to ferry people around its regional offices because of a lack of public transportation alternatives.
One Google worker who I know catches her bus in Mountainview at 6.30 am every morning for San Francisco and arrives back at 8 pm every night. Others spend their spare time as members of the “maker movement”, frequenting well-stocked work shops such as Tech Shop to build prototypes or cool gadgets for themselves.
Mark Hatch, author of “Maker Manifesto”, launched this chain of shops, each outfitted with $3.5 million worth of everything from laser cutters to lathes, saws and plastic extrusion gizmos. These shops are open 24/7, staffed with helpers, trainers and are run like a club at a cost of $125 a month. Eight are opened, and thriving, and another 30 are in the pipeline. But opening these outside the “Valley” are fraught with peril unless there’s a population of geeks who would rather tinker than play golf or video games.
“Billions of dollars have been created and thousands of jobs by `makers’ who come to our shops and create products,” said Hatch in a lecture at Singularity University this week.
Poster boy is a glassblower from St. Louis named James McKlevey, founder of Square (a revolutionary credit card swipe-system) who made a prototype to show investors and now has a company valued at $6 billion.
Another success story was Phil Hughes, an electrical engineer who, with a partner, devised and built a prototype of a device that will dramatically reduce power usage in the world’s server cooling systems for $20,000, saving billions. Their device has been licensed by one of the world’s biggest electrical companies.
Similar clusters have sprung up around the world, but with little success. Part of the problem is that the region represents a giant sucking sound drawing in talent and brains and ideas from around the world. The engineers are here. The attitude is here. The venture capital is here. The infrastructure is here.
And the sky isn’t the limit here. Projects for space travel, mining asteroids and high-altitude balloons launched to replace the world’s microwave towers are well advanced. It may sound like a Star Trek rerun, but robots in our stores is only the beginning.