In September, San Diego robotics startup Brain Corporation will introduce artificial intelligence software that allows giant commercial floor-cleaning machines to navigate autonomously. The followup offering it wants to develop may be even more forward-looking: a training and certification program for janitors to operate the machines.
The program, still in early stages of planning, is aimed at both helping janitors maximize efficiency and establishing standards and best practices for the use of robots in janitorial work, according to Brain Corporation. The company says it is not aware any other such training program exists.
There's additional incentive for Brain Corp. to offer training options. Buzz around artificial intelligence and robotics technologies has caused concerns about jobs being automated out of existence. It's prudent for Brain Corp. to frame its machine as non-threatening in the eyes of organized labor groups.
"Getting unions on board is essential," says Brain Corp. vice president of marketing Phil Duffy. "The second you try and cut the union reps out, it's doomed to fail." The company is not currently speaking with unions directly, however. Instead, customers who contract with union workers are relaying to Brain Corp. how unions may react to the technology and what practices they prefer.
Brain Corp., which started as a research and development contractor for Qualcomm in 2009, installs intelligent systems on existing machines. Its first "autonomy as a service" product is navigation software known as EMMA, for "Enabling Mobile Machine Automation." Brain Corp plans to expand into automation modules for other devices, including additional floor care machines, mobile medical equipment, and industrial forklift trucks.
The EMMA brain module is installed during manufacturing on products built by the startup's manufacturing partners. EMMA will first be featured in International Cleaning Equipment's RS26 floor scrubber. In addition to guiding movement of the machine, EMMA is designed to learn when to turn the scrubber on and off. Improvements in perception and navigation by EMMA are distributed to all machines that use the module.
CEO Eugene Izhikevich says teaching robots enabled with Brain Corp.'s AI technology "is like teaching an animal or teaching a child by giving instructions, but very instinctive, very intuitive." Because it's so intuitive, those training the machines do not necessarily need engineering backgrounds, he says.
Developing a training program
In the case of robotics technology geared toward commercial cleaning jobs, Brain Corp. would be wise to try to appeal to the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents employees in a variety of labor fields, including janitorial services.
Andrew Stern, former president of SEIU, says the cost of disruption to a business from a union opposing the implementation of automation technology could outweigh benefits such as cost savings. Janitorial services, while critical to maintenance of buildings such as hospitals and apartment buildings, amount to only a small portion of overall operating costs, so possible savings from automation could be fractional, he says.
Stern says there are some U.S. markets where SEIU doesn't have much of a presence. Malls and warehouses in these regions may be ideal places to try out automated floor scrubbers and other robotic equipment without concern for union reaction.
SEIU declined to comment for this story.
Stern notes that Brain Corp. also can benefit from partnering with unions like SEIU because they have training facilities and practices in place that would help with scaling a training program.
While unions tend to be hesitant about automation, they are eager for training programs that can help advance their members' skills, says Daniel Wagner, the director of education, standards, and training for the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA), which reviews and validates training programs. ISSA has been in communication with Brain Corp. about a potential partnership.
"There is always the possibility that we could ask Brain to develop a program for ISSA to administer and manage, but we are not at that point yet," Wagner says.
In a statement, Brain Corp. said it is also testing its technology at its development partner sites. The trials "will ultimately enable us to develop the best program for integration with the janitorial industry. We plan to launch the training program by mid-2017."