When you click “checkout” for your weekly online groceries, you set in motion a chain of events that will bring the shopping to your door.
Computers and algorithms play a part, but the overwhelming majority of actions – from selecting and packing your shopping, to delivering it to your door – are carried out by humans.
However, this is changing.
The world’s largest online grocery retailer, Ocado, has developed an automated warehouse manned by robots.
At the site in Hampshire, UK, 1,000 robots race across a grid the size of several football pitches.
Below them are 50,000 grocery products in crates, from which the robots select items to fulfill an order.
The rectangular robots, developed with British robotics firm Tharsus, can travel across the grid at speeds of up to 4 metres per second (over 14km per hour). They are equipped with artificial intelligence and capable of 4 million calculations per second.
After opening the automated warehouse at the end of 2016, Ocado reached a milestone earlier this year when it put together an average order of 50 different items in five minutes.
Fulfilling a similar order at one of the company’s older facilities manned by humans takes an average of about two hours.
Handle with care
While Ocado’s Hampshire facility is a significant step for automating online grocery shopping, it still employs 200 people to carry out tasks that robots are not yet capable of, such as packing orders onto delivery trucks.
One of the biggest barriers to greater automation of online grocery shopping is current robotics’ inability to handle soft and unpredictably-shaped items such as fruit without damaging them.
In response, Ocado is working with the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB) in an EU-funded project to develop robots capable of soft manipulation.
The RBO Hand 2 uses flexible rubber materials and pressurized air from seven individually controllable air chambers to create a highly versatile gripper.
While there is clearly potential for the whole of an online shop to be packed automatically, the other key component ripe for automation is delivery.
The electric self-driving van, called CargoPod, delivered groceries to customers in southeast London.
CargoPod is equipped with eight compartments. The corresponding customer compartment lights up when CargoPod arrives at a particular customer’s stop.
The customer is then able to press a central button, which unlocks the compartment, and open the door and retrieve their groceries.
However, it wasn’t the country’s first automated delivery of an online shop. That came in 2016 with a world-first for Amazon as it successfully delivered via a drone to a customer in rural England.
Elsewhere, Google sister company X is using drones to deliver burritos and pharmaceuticals to customers in rural Australia.
And in Switzerland drones are being used to deliver medical supplies to hospitals.
As automation continues to grow in the world of online shopping, it is likely to have a human cost.
According to a report by the Oxford Martin School, 80% of jobs in retail warehousing, logistics and transportation are at risk from automation.
Across all sectors, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report predicts that as many as 5 million jobs globally could be lost as soon as 2020 as AI, robotics, nanotechnology and other technologies replace the need for human workers.
Leading academics and industry experts predict that in the next decade, AI will outperform humans in tasks such as translating languages (by 2024), writing high-school essays (by 2026) and driving a truck (by 2027).
Retail, however, will take slightly longer to succumb to full automation: the AI experts surveyed by the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute said that it was unlikely robots could outperform retail salespeople until 2031. This is despite last year’s successful trial of Amazon Go, a grocery store where there are no cashiers or checkouts.
However, humans were still employed to stock shelves in the Amazon Go store – although developments such as Ocado’s work on robotics suggest that it is only a matter of time until these roles become automated too.