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Sensemaker Special: A new age of robotics

Sensemaker Special: A new age of robotics

Thursday 2 December 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The US urged Russia to pull its troops back from the Ukrainian border and promised a “resolute” response in the event of an invasion.
  • Tel Aviv overtook Paris and Singapore to become the world’s most expensive city, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • The Women’s Tennis Association suspended all of its tournaments in China because of continuing concerns about the wellbeing of Peng Shuai.

A new age of robotics

The dining room in Ocado’s HQ north of London has a new addition to its menu: robot-made meals. The robot’s called Semblr and it assembles pre-cooked food items like rice, sauces and meats into a donburi bowl using mechanical arms. Customers can choose how much of each item they want, to the gram. 

Semblr’s job seems simple, but it uses a complex combination of sensors and artificial intelligence to work. AI helps it “see” what’s going on – not just looking at images but interpreting them – and to handle changes in food consistency. So if rice is fluffy one day but stiff the next, the robot knows what to do.

Karakuri, the company behind Semblr, is one of over a thousand British firms Tortoise is tracking with the Global AI Index, whose latest update is released today. And like many of them it’s poised to benefit from a wave of investment in smart robots that harness AI to do jobs humans would prefer not to. 

We found that:

  • global investment in AI has nearly quadrupled in the past four years;
  • UK-based startups attracted $2.5 billion in funding in 2021 alone, a 230 per cent increase on 2017;
  • funding for UK smart robotics, which helps machines learn from their environments, spiked last year at $170 million. 

Covid contributed to this AI investment drive by creating a sudden need for remote working tools as the world went into lockdown. But so did labour shortages as the world came out of it. Indeed, the fact Covid prompted so many people to quit their jobs could finally tip us into the age of robotics, says Karakuri’s founder, Barney Wragg. 

Workers in the food service industry no longer have an appetite for “boring jobs, repetitive jobs, hot jobs, uncomfortable jobs and smelly jobs”, he says. So why not give those jobs to robots? 

Resignations and job moves in the UK are at their highest level in 20 years. Vacancies are also at a record high – there are about 1.2 million in the UK. This means workers on minimum or low wages are in a position to demand more from their employers for now, even if AI threatens their jobs in the longer term.

On the one hand…

  • Broccoli pickers in Lincolnshire are earning £30+ an hour despite competition from an experimental £400,000 broccoli-picking robot called RoboVeg, BBC’s Panorama reported last night.

On the other…

  • Within two years RoboVeg machines could have replaced one in seven broccoli pickers;
  • Karakuri is working with big brands in the fast food industry as well as the canteen industry to figure out how to automate many of the roles they’re struggling to fill.
  • White Castle, the burger chain from Ohio, has a state-of-the-art robot called Flippy 2 that uses AI to distinguish between chicken, chips and minced beef before frying it.
  • Last month, McDonald’s entered into a “strategic partnership” with IBM to develop AI technology to help it automate its drive-thru lanes.

We have, in a sense, been here before. 2019 saw the rise and fall of many a Silicon Valley food tech startup: pizza robot developer Zume saw mass layoffs, while Miso Robotics, which makes burger flipping technology, lost its CEO and COO in the same year. 

Food tech – and robotics in particular – are nascent, expensive, complex technologies, and they can take years to build. So what’s changed since 2019? “There’s probably 25–30 startups around the world in our space… We’re all seeing massive demand,” Bragg says.

Looks like Ocado’s kitchen bot is here to stay, night and day, on no pay or benefits and with no need for a pension. 


belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Anti-feminists assemble
Two British MPs signed up for a men’s rights conference whose organisers include a self-described anti-feminist and the founder of an organisation named by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a male supremacist hate group. ​Lee Anderson MP (Cons.), who sits on the Women and Equalities Select Committee in Westminster, was listed as a speaker at the online International Conference on Men’s Issues (ICMI) until the end of last week – when his profile disappeared. We asked why but he didn’t reply. Henry Smith, MP for Crawley in West Sussex, withdrew after we contacted him for comment on Monday afternoon. He disavowed the “more extreme positions” of other speakers at the conference. These two aren’t the first MPs to be linked to the event: Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, has appeared at three past editions of the conference. David Lawrence, senior researcher at Hope not Hate, said MPs’ participation in the ICMI “helps to legitimise the misogyny and retrograde politics prevalent at such events”. Interesting that Anderson didn’t try to put another point of view. Read more.


New things technology, science, engineering

Cloud atlas
Researchers at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research and SilverLining, a non-profit that studies how to dim solar radiation to slow global warming, created 30 simulations of what Earth would look like by the middle of this century. The answer is not good: more carbon dioxide; the hottest years of the past decades as the new normal; sea ice at record lows or completely absent in some summers. The more surprising part of the exercise is that it used computer processors from Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing platform, rather than a supercomputer. It’s one of the first attempts to do modelling at this scale on the cloud, where computing time is bought per hour, and is much, much cheaper than a supercomputer. The possibilities – including many more simulated worlds – are endless.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Scotus ponders abortion 
Yesterday the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson – the biggest challenge to reproductive rights in a generation. The court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, is answering one question: “Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.” If the justices side with the state of Mississippi (Dobbs), Roe v. Wade and the rights it established to access abortion would be gutted. It’s likely they will. Some key moments: 1. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the constitution should be “neutral” on abortion and let states decide for themselves. 2. Justices clashed over whether they should be overturning significant precedent. (The conservative view is that if they can overturn racial segregation laws, they should be able to do the same with abortion. The liberal counterpoint is that decisions on racial segregation established more rights instead of removing existing ones.) 3. Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not mince her words: “Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception?” Expect a decision from the court next summer.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Floating nukes
The world’s first floating nuclear power plant will become operational in 2023 in Siberia. It’s being developed by Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, and the FT calls it “a sign of how President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for Russia’s far east are taking shape”. It’s also a sign of how narrowly those ambitions are focused on mineral extraction and shipping. The floating power station will bring energy to mines in remotest Chukotka, closer to Seattle than to Moscow, including one of Russia’s largest tin deposits and a gold mine developed by UK-listed miner Polymetal. The power plant is anchored off Pevek on the Arctic coast, which Putin wants to become a shipping hub midway between Europe and South Korea as Arctic ice retreats. Rosatom wants four more similar plants by the end of the decade.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

A costly new year
The Centre for Economics and Business Research, a consultancy in London, predicted inflation would rise to 4.6 per cent by Christmas. This means a typical family would spend £1,700 more on household costs next year. The analysts said that supermarkets are trying to keep prices constant over Christmas, even by absorbing the rising prices themselves, but will have to pass on some of the costs to customers afterwards. Prices will continue rising as long as global supply chains struggle to adapt to the post-pandemic economy. Inflation is already at 6.2 per cent in the US – its highest rate since the early 90s. But there’s a problem specific to the UK: post-Brexit immigration rules have created labour shortages, higher wages, and so higher prices. Will it be a passing thing? We’ll address the great debate about transitory vs structural inflation in an age of quantitative easing and climate change in a Sensemaker next week. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Kim Darrah
@Kimgidarrah

Patricia Clarke
@paticlarke

With additional reporting by Paul Caruana Galizia, Ellen Halliday and Phoebe Davis.

Edited by Xavier Greenwood and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

Illustration Laurie Avon for Tortoise