Autonomous Grocery Shopping

Toyota Research shared an excited post at Medium describing the new autonomous grocery shopping robot they are developing.

Mind you, they’re not suggesting that robots will be able to take care of grocery shopping for us humans anytime soon. We’re still gettin g the kinks out of Instacart shopping by actual humans with opposable thumbs and an understanding of how food is supposed to taste.

Toyot is teaching robots to shop in order to provide a worthwhile challenge task: something difficult for robots to do, that allows engineers to try out innovative approaches to improving robotic performance.

Here are some things that make grocery shopping hard for robots:

  • It takes place in a complex, changing environment with lots of different objects.
  • Robots have trouble figuring out how to grasp items of different sizes and shapes.
  • Unexpected circumstances arise — always tough for robots.

In addition, they like the idea that this skill could help elderly people, it’s handy to be able to set up realistic grocery aisles in their testing environment, and the natural variations of groceries and grocery shelves create continual new challenges.

It’s clearly a great opportunity for the engineers!

How it works

Video captures of the grocery aisles are fed into a machine learning system which generates a 3-D map for the robots. It also creates a long random shopping list. The robots use their sensors and the maps together to find and grasp the groceries. If it succeeds in getting the item into the cart, it moves on to the next item. If not, it tries again.

In addition to practice I n the lab, the robots have been going on field trips at real grocery stores at night, and they are getting better and better at the task as they go along.

Is that all it takes?

It’s an excellent challenge task. But grocery shopping doesn’t really work that way. Think of all the problem-solving tasks involved in good grocery shop, even assuming a pre-made list:

  • Choosing the best value among similar products
  • Identifying reasonable replacements for out of stocks (which could include 20% of the items on a real grocery list)
  • Recognizing fresh produce and perishables
  • Catching out of date products before adding them to the cart
  • Making nutrition-based decisions among alternatives
  • Packing groceries safely without squashing items
  • Checking to make sure none of the eggs in a carton is broken

We could go on. But the robot can’t. Like folding clothes and sewing, grocery shopping is a task that isn’t really suited to automation.

Available groceries have already been subject to market forces that favors automation, and the consequences to the taste, texture, and nutritional value of our food supply are already apparent. Robotic grocery shoppers will make this situation worse, we’re pretty sure.

With no disrespect to Toyota, we think there is value in focusing robotic research on tasks that robots will actually do well.

In the meantime, when you need service and support for your Rexroth motion control, no matter what you use it for, we can help. We’re Rexroth specialists, and we can get you back up and running fast.

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