Robots’ Next Big Job: Trash Pickup?

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 10.10.46 AM

You’ve heard of self-driving cars, fast-moving robots, and automated homes. Now a research group led by Volvo, a waste-recycling company, and a trio of universities in the United States and Sweden want to bring much of the same technology to bear on a new problem: trash disposal.

Specifically, the consortium wants to build a robot that will collect trash-bins from in front of peoples’ homes, carry those bins to the nearest waste-disposal truck, and empty them. While that’s a pretty simple (although smelly) task for a human being, it’s an incredibly complex task for a robot, which will need to evaluate and respond to a wide range of environmental variables while carrying a heavy load. An uneven curb, or an overloaded bin, could spell disaster.

“We foresee a future with more automation,” Per-Lage Gotvall, project leader for the Volvo Group, wrote in a statement. “This project provides a way to stretch the imagination and test new concepts to shape transport solutions for tomorrow.”

(Hopefully Volvo’s experiment can succeed where some of its other self-driving projects have failed.)

Whether or not garbage-collecting robots enter the mainstream, it’s clear that those tech pros with a background in robotics and artificial intelligence are finding their skills more in demand than ever, especially if they have an advanced research background.

For example, ride-sharing service Uber recently poached most of Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department. The company wants to build self-driving cars that will not only reliably carry passengers and cargo, but do so better than Google’s own autonomous vehicles, which are in the experimental stage. Facebook and other big tech firms are likewise exploring how artificial intelligence can boost their respective businesses.

For all the supposed benefits that autonomous (or semi-autonomous) robots will confer upon society, however, there are also concerns that the rise of artificial intelligence will destroy jobs currently held by flesh-and-blood humans. It’s not just factory work, or even hardware, that’s supposedly in the crosshairs; more and more IT vendors have focused on building platforms that automate much of the software-building and maintenance process.

That sort of automation is great for companies that own datacenters, for example, which now only need a few human beings to keep running. But the overall trend has some highly trained tech pros worried about their jobs, even if robotics and artificial intelligence are still relatively nascent as technology categories. Seeing robots collect your trash every morning would only increase those concerns.

One Response to “Robots’ Next Big Job: Trash Pickup?”