Ocado is creating an army of robots to pick your groceries for you.
The humanoid robots will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision systems to eventually "increase safety, efficiency, and productivity in the workplace."
Online grocer Ocado, which is is the "Amazon of food" and one of Britain's most exciting tech companies, revealed in an emailed statement that it is developing a league of robots under the "SecondHands project" to understand and support human workers.
Ocado will work with a consortium of universities to create an autonomous humanoid robot which could later be used across various work places.
But it's not looking to replace humans with the robots – it's looking to help them out. Ocado says that it wants to create a robot that can offer assistance with difficult maintenance jobs, such as handing tools to human technicians, and manipulate objects like ladders, pneumatic cylinders and bolts.
“The ultimate aim is for humans to end up relying on collaborative robots because they have become an active participant in their daily tasks,” said Dr Graham Deacon, Robotics Research Team Leader at Ocado Technology, in a statement. “In essence the SecondHands robot will know what to do, when to do it and how to do it in a manner that a human can depend on.”
The SecondHands project will be completed over five years and is part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, which includes one of the worlds largest civilian robotics programmes. Horizon 2020 is the EU's initiative to fund major development in science and technology across the 28 nation bloc.
The ambitions for Ocado's project are pretty incredible. The SecondHands project wants robots to have the cognitive and perceptive ability to "understand when the operator is in need of help, understand how this help can be given and provide relevant assistance."
The AI component is intended to allow the robot to "progressively acquire skills and knowledge needed to provide assistance. In fact, it will even anticipate the needs of the maintenance technician and execute the appropriate tasks without prompting."
Scientists are also looking to develop advanced 3D vision systems to allow the robot to "estimate the 3D articulated pose of humans and offer support when it is needed without being asked." In other words, to see what help a human worker needs and offer it without prompting.
Finally, scientists hope to install a humanoid shape and human-like flexibility that will enable natural collaboration between humans and the robot. This means the robot will be able to understand and determine how to interact with living and inanimate objects — like knowing when to grip more tightly when picking up a hammer, as opposed to an apple.
Ocado is racking up massive revenue growth and creating a whole heap of technology that it can hive off and sell on to other businesses should it wish. Its revenues grew by 20% to nearly £1 billion ($1.5 billion) in 2014.
Ocado employs ten robotics experts, from leading robotics research institutions, such as The University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London.