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These Bay Area Robots Are Cool, But They Freak Me Out Anyway

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My generation has been on the receiving end of popular culture warnings about the rise of robots and artificial intelligence since we were old enough to sit up straight in a movie seat. Whether it was the HAL 9000 computer murdering all but one of his astronaut colleagues in “2001” or the misanthropic Skynet AI sending robo-Arnold back in time to obliterate the human race, the message was clear: If it looks, sounds, or acts human, but isn’t, time to flee.

Today, it can be disquieting to realize that after all that screen speculation about machine malice, some real honest-to-goodness robots are finally among us. And while a robotic smoothie-making arm, as photographed below, is unlikely to figure out time travel, one does wonder, at the very least, if these latest advances in automation are going to bite the same chunk out of service industry jobs that an earlier wave did out of manufacturing. The five automatons profiled below aren’t the only ones in town;  you should also mull over the societal implications of the burger-making robot, the salad-making robot, and the pharmaceutical-technician robot

Yes, the robots are here. Get used to it.


Pepper, from Softbank Robotics, went “live” in 2014, and for now, at least, we’re still putting that word in quotes. According to the company’s website, Pepper is the “first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions,” though some work in that area may be needed — here’s video of Pepper asking a kid her household income. Pepper is 4 feet tall, speaks 15 different languages and can currently be found loitering outside the Microsoft store in San Francisco’s Westfield Mall. Softbank says more than 2,000 companies “around the world have adopted Pepper as an assistant to welcome, inform and guide visitors in an innovative way.” Above, young Giavannie Ugarte tells Pepper she comes in peace.


Marble is an electric autonomous delivery robot that uses cameras and sensors to navigate sidewalks. The company was founded in San Francisco in 2015 by two computer scientists out of Carnegie Mellon University. Here Marble makes its way along a testing route in Concord, with its  “Cross at the Green, Not In Between” algorithm on display.

Knightscope Security Robot

This vaguely R2D2-looking robocop was created by the Knightscope company, headquartered in Mountain View.  This K5 model seen patrolling the Westfield Valley Fair Mall in Santa Clara deters criminals at around a 3 mph clip, streaming and recording the goings-on for humans to view offsite. About 5 feet tall and 398 pounds, the K5 has a body-mass index only another robot could appreciate. The company says  about 60 of its robots are active in 15 different states. If you happen to find the K5 a tad creepy, just wait till you get a load of the K7.

Cafe X

At the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, Cafe X looks like a lot of fun to Diana, Sam and Hamilton Carter,  shown here agog at the coffee-making robotic arm that may one day superannuate thousands of Bay Area baristas like so many 1970s gas station attendants. Customers can order on their phones or at kiosks.


Along with six cameras, a GPS system, and eight-hour batteries, Kiwibots come bearing food and other merchandise at UC Berkeley and Stanford, but their tos and fros are monitored by human colleagues in the company’s hometown of Bogota, Colombia, should one of the little guys, say, wander off to a union meeting. Customers order from partner restaurants and merchants on an app, and the company claims an average delivery time of 35 minutes. Here in this video you can watch the Kiwibots swarm the UC Berkeley campus as if they were headed to a protest rally.


Blendid aims to do for mixed fruity beverages what CafeX wants to do for coffee drinks: make them without the intervention of humans. In the Market Cafe at the University of San Francisco, above, a robotic arm named Chef B, a marvel of precisely calibrated human mimickry, whirls, twirls, darts and bobs, all in the service of making a smoothie. One motion you won’t see: edging a tip jar closer to the customers.




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