John Lewis Partnership prepares itself for the rise of the retail robot

John Lewis Partnership and several innovation companies have created what has been dubbed as “the world's first blueprint for human-robot interaction”, paving the way for the “safe and ethical adoption” of robotics in Britain.


Waitrose is trialling farmbots at its farm in Leckford, Hampshire - John Lewis Partnership

The department store said on Thursday it has joined forces with the Small Robot Company, strategic design consultancy Method, and a number of robotics companies and industry bodies to develop the framework.

The retailer’s supermarket chain Waitrose has already started using harvesting robots in a farm in Leckford, Hampshire, and John Lewis’ innovation team is working closely with the Small Robot Company to explore what robotics can do to transform the retail industry.

The benchmark was unveiled at Google’s London headquarters on Thursday, marking the first “real-world” effort to define how autonomous robotic technology should interact with people since science fiction writer Isaac Asimov founded the first laws of robotics in his 1942 short story Runaround.

“Britain is a melting pot for robotics innovation and the use of autonomous robot technology to assist human workers is a very real prospect for the future. Before we get there, we need to define how that relationship works,” explained John Vary, futurologist at the John Lewis Partnership.

Driven by the evolution of artificial intelligence, the number of  industrial robots active in the UK has grown by 30% and there are now 2,300 active units, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

“Real world robotics is set to explode,” said Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder of the Small Robot Company. “Powered by Artificial Intelligence, robots are now becoming truly autonomous, and we're about to see a massive influx of commercial robots in the consumer domain. In our shops, our factories, our hotels, our streets and our fields. It's vital that consumers can trust and feel comfortable with these encounters.”

The blueprint defines different elements of human-robot interaction, such as how the user/ robot relationship should function and how robots should be properly programmed.

After an initial stakeholder consultation event at Google’s office in London, these principles will be put up for public consultation, and the output will be used to develop a first-of-its kind commercial human-robot interaction guide.

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