Axios What's Next

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Production of bipedal robots that look (and move) more like you and me is about to ramp up in a big way, Jennifer reports today.

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1 big thing: Humanoid robot factory

Digit, a bipedal robot from Agility Robotics, will be mass-produced at a factory in Oregon. Image courtesy of Agility Robotics.

Digit, a bipedal robot from Agility Robotics, will be mass-produced at a factory in Oregon. Image: Courtesy of Agility Robotics

A factory planning to pump out 10,000 two-legged robots a year is taking shape in Salem, Oregon β€” the better to help Amazon and other giant companies with dangerous hauling, lifting and moving. Jennifer reports.

Why it matters: Agility Robotics says that its RoboFab manufacturing facility will be the first to mass-produce humanoid robots, which could be nimbler and more versatile than their existing industrial counterparts.

Driving the news: Agility Robotics, which makes a bot named Digit that's being tested by Amazon, plans to open RoboFab early next year, inaugurating what CEO Damion Shelton calls "the world's first purpose-built humanoid robot factory."

  • "We've placed a very high priority on just getting robots out there as fast as possible," Shelton, who's also a co-founder, tells Axios.
  • "Our big plan is that we want to get to general-purpose humanoids as soon as we can."
  • There's a growing backlog of orders for Digit, which the company says is the first commercially available human-shaped robot designed for warehouse work.

Where it stands: Agility has produced about 100 robots since its founding in 2016, and plans to move Digit production from its Tangent, Oregon headquarters to the more spacious 70,000-square-foot RoboFab facility in the coming months.

  • At first, production will be in the hundreds, but eventually RoboFab is "going to have a significantly larger capacity of 10,000 robots per year, peak," Shelton says.

Zoom out: Building bipedal robots that can walk without falling over is an engineering challenge that has stymied many a robotics champion.

  • Giving them dexterous hands and arms β€” and programming them so they can work safely alongside humans β€” are other big stumbling blocks.
  • Competitors in this space include Tesla with its Optimus, Boston Dynamics with Atlas, Sanctuary AI with Phoenix, Figure with its eponymous robot, and Apptronik with Apollo.
A Digit robot at a lab near Seattle where Amazon is testing them. Image courtesy of Agility Robotics.
A Digit robot at a lab near Seattle where Amazon is testing them. Image: Courtesy of Agility Robotics

The intrigue: Amazon, which deploys a multitude of purpose-driven robots, recently announced that it's testing Digit at a laboratory south of Seattle.

  • "Our initial use for this technology will be to help employees with tote recycling, a highly repetitive process of picking up and moving empty totes once inventory has been completely picked out of them," per Amazon's announcement.
  • Amazon has invested in Agility through its Industrial Innovation Fund. The companies won't say how much, but it's been reported that Amazon was "part of a $150 million funding round that Agility Robotics completed in 2022."

Fun fact: Digit, who is 5'9" and 140 pounds, can walk over and plug itself in when it needs to recharge.

What they're saying: "We're excited about Agility β€” we've been working closely with them since about April of last year," Amazon's chief roboticist, Tye Brady, tells Axios.

  • "I'm curious about the bipedal nature. I'm curious about mobility in general," he said, adding that it's "very early days" for robots of this type.
  • By testing the robots in a lab, Amazon hopes to figure out how they might move in an actual fulfillment center surrounded by people.
  • "With an uneven surface, a bipedal robot can handle that better than a wheeled robot," Brady said, also praising the two-legged robot's "ability to turn in tight corners."

Between the lines: Sensitive to the concern that robots will take jobs from humans, Amazon teamed up with MIT in October for a project that aims to study automation's impact on work.

  • Amazon says the 750,000 mobile robots it has deployed in the last decade have helped create 700 new categories of jobs for humans.
  • "Robots are good at taking on repetitive and predictable tasks, and by doing so, they can free up employees to take on more complex responsibilities that help us better deliver for customers," Brady said in an interview on Amazon's website.

The bottom line: There's great momentum behind robots, and humanoid versions specifically β€” which are appealing in an anthropomorphic way β€” but also lots more on-the-job testing to be done.

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2. U.S. not ready for AI, robotic wars

The autonomous Roadrunner-M, billed as a "radical new class of recoverable ground-based air defense capability," was unveiled Friday. Photo: Anduril Industries

The autonomous Roadrunner-M, billed as a "radical new class of recoverable ground-based air defense capability," was unveiled Friday. Photo: Anduril Industries

America's ability to remain the world's most lethal military hinges on two interrelated mysteries, Axios' Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen report.

  • Can soon-to-retire four-star generals truly foresee the awesome power of artificial intelligence in time to break generation-old habits and shift warfare theories?
  • And, if they do, can they convince the brightest coding minds to chuck lucrative gigs at Google to build AI-powered systems for America faster or better than their rivals in China?

Why it matters: Future wars will be won with Stanford nerds, faster chips, superior computing power and precision robotics on land, sea and air.

  • Experts tell us that because of a lethal combination of congressional myopia and constipated Pentagon buying rules, America isn't mobilizing fast enough to prevail on future battlefields.
  • "We are witnessing an unprecedented fundamental change in the character of war, and our window of opportunity to ensure that we maintain an enduring competitive advantage is closing," retired Army Gen. Mark Milley, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in a report shortly before retiring this fall.

Yes, but: Experts say the U.S. is still spending too much time and money building aircraft carriers and other outmoded artifacts of analog war because of the archaic restraints of what the late Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain called the "military-industrial-congressional complex."

Keep reading.

3. Second life for malls

Illustration of a mall directory with new stickers all over it describing attractions

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Shopping malls nationwide are adding lifestyle experiences and off-kilter attractions to draw in consumers, Axios' April Rubin reports.

The big picture: Extravagant entertainment options have long been a feature of America's largest malls. Now smaller ones are catching up as they attempt to stave off decay.

New attractions range from ice rinks and huge entertainment venues to niche gyms.

  • Conestoga Mall in Grand Island, Nebraska, is undergoing a $250 million facelift, where additions of a hotel, bike trail and entertainment complex are under consideration for the "zombie mall."
  • Macon Mall in Macon, Georgia, was revitalized with the addition of a pickleball facility and 10,000-seat outdoor amphitheater.
  • The Oakdale Mall in Johnson City, New York, which had few stores in recent years, is now home to the country's largest Dick's Sporting Goods, with an ice rink and a large turf field.

Reality check: Not everyone is as optimistic about experiential retail revitalizing malls.

  • "There's always going to be an opportunity ... to create physical interaction," says Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School.
  • "But it's not going to reverse the direction of the tides in places which have fallen by the wayside."

Go deeper.

4. πŸ“Έ Parting shot: Self-driving into war

Image: Courtesy Kodiak Robotics

Self-driving truck startup Kodiak Robotics yesterday unveiled a Ford F-150 pickup outfitted with autonomous driving tech for military use.

  • The truck is designed to quickly get recon teams out of dangerous areas, and can be operated either autonomously or via remote control.
  • Kodiak is making two of the vehicles for Department of Defense testing.

The big picture: Kodiak is following in the footsteps of several eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) startups, which are also exploring military use β€” and potentially lucrative Pentagon contracts.

Big thanks to What's Next copy editor Amy Stern.

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