Workers can operate a forklift in their pajamas and never leave their bedrooms, thanks to a new generation of AI-assisted robots.
What’s new: Companies are pairing semi-autonomous vehicles with remote human operators to execute tasks that the vehicles can’t handle on their own, Wired reported.
Distance driving: Robots that use AI to navigate around warehouses or perform manual labor can encounter situations that weren’t well represented in their training data. When that happens, a remote operator can step in — sometimes from a continent away.

  • Phantom Auto employs people to operate forklifts from consoles equipped with a steering wheel, pedals, and screens that display a vehicle’s front, behind, and side views. If an operator’s connection lags or fails, a machine learning algorithm kicks in to navigate the machine and bring it to a safe stop.
  • The logistics company ArcBest modified Phantom Auto forklifts to maneuver equipment around its warehouses autonomously, looping in human operators only for complex tasks like stacking pallets and unloading trucks.
  • Pod, an autonomous electric truck from Swedish firm Einride, autonomously moves cargo within manufacturing facilities. AI coordinates the movements of multiple vehicles, but remote human operators stand by to take the wheel if a vehicle gets into trouble.
  • Online retailer Ocado uses autonomous robot arms to grasp items from storage bins. If a particular item, such as an unfamiliar product, confuses the system, human operators based in Mexico and the Philippines guide the arm through the task.

Why it matters: The pandemic has left 597,000 logistics jobs unfilled in the U.S. alone, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. A combination of automation and remote human intervention might cover the gap, provide more flexible working conditions, and smooth wrinkles in global supply chains.
We’re thinking: Even as remote-controlled, semi-autonomous technology creates new jobs, it’s bound to eliminate others. Companies need to devote ample resources to retraining and upskilling workers whose jobs are at risk.

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