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商业 - 科技

亚马逊绝密项目揭秘,家用机器人或明年面市

彭博社 2018年05月13日

亚马逊希望在今年年底以前开始在公司员工的家中投放机器人,可能最早2019年推向大众市场。

十年前,亚马逊公司发布Kindle,提升了用数字设备阅读的吸引力。四年前,在首席执行官杰夫·贝佐斯领导下,亚马逊推出了智能语音助手Echo,此后数百万人开始跟电脑对话。

现在,亚马逊又下了一个大赌注:家用机器人。

知情者称,零售与云计算领域巨头亚马逊启动了一项雄心勃勃的绝密计划,要打造家用机器人。该项目代号维斯塔(Vesta),维斯塔是古罗马神话中掌管炉灶、家庭和家人的女神。项目管理人格雷格·泽尔主管亚马逊在美国加州森尼韦尔的Lab126硬件研发部门。Lab126负责多款亚马逊设备的研发,比如Echo扬声器、Fire TV机顶盒、Fire平板电脑和市场表现不佳的手机Fire Phone。

维斯塔项目萌生于几年前,但直到今年,亚马逊才开始积极地招兵买马。Lab126部门的求职页面有诸如“软件工程师,机器人方向”、“首席传感器工程师”等几十个岗位。了解计划的人士透露,亚马逊希望在今年年底以前开始在公司员工的家中投放机器人,可能最早2019年推向大众市场。但计划日程可能会变动,亚马逊的硬件项目有时会胎死腹中。

一位亚马逊的发言人称,公司对“传闻和猜测”不予置评。

目前尚不清楚亚马逊的机器人可能具有哪些功能。熟悉该项目的人士推测,“维斯塔”机器人可能是某种移动版的Echo内置语音助手Alexa,即使没有购置Echo设备的用户也可以方便使用。该机器人样机配有先进的摄像头和电脑视觉软件,可以像自动驾驶汽车一样在家中移动。苹果公司前高管麦克斯·佩利主导电脑视觉研发。亚马逊还从机器人行业聘请了专业机械工程师。

知情人士表示,维塔斯项目的机器人跟亚马逊位于美国马萨诸塞州和德国的子公司Amazon Robitcs设计的产品不一样。该公司制造的机器人主要在亚马逊仓库里负责搬运商品,由此前的Kiva Systems公司设计。2012年亚马逊以7.55亿美元收购该公司后改名为Amazon Robitcs。

几十年前,科技业就希望通过家用机器人提供陪伴,或完成基本的家务。早在1983年,美国电脑游戏厂商雅达利的创始人诺兰·布什内尔就推出一款三英尺(约0.9米)高的雪人形象机器人Topo Robot。该机器人可以根据苹果II电脑的编程指挥移动,但功能单一所以销售惨淡。多年来,美国、日本和中国市场都曾推出服务型机器人,不过进步有限。美国机器人公司iRobot Corp.推出的Roomba只能吸尘扫地,就已在业内一枝独秀,2002年以来售出超过2000万台。

最近,日本索尼和韩国LG电子也表现出对机器人感兴趣。今年1月的国际消费类电子展览会(CES)上,LG展示了一款Cloi,但演示时多次执行任务失败。索尼则展出了新版的机器狗Aibo。20年前索尼发布了机器狗的概念,直到2005年左右开始发售初版。Aibo除了模仿狗叫也没有多少别的本事(倒是可以编程踢足球)。新版机器狗售价1800美元,和去犬舍买一条真正的狗价格相当。

如今,电脑视觉、摄像头、人工智能和语音激活技术进步迅速,提升了亚马逊向市场推出机器人的可能。亚马逊已明确表示,如果Prime会员用户通过亚马逊的设备购买更多产品,订购更多服务,亚马逊愿意为机器人提供部分补贴。这也意味着,不远的将来主流消费者选购机器人会更轻松。

全球市场研究机构Research and Markets估算,到2023年消费类机器人的市场规模将从今年的54亿美元左右增长到每年约150亿美元。(龙8国际|官网)

译者:Pessy

审稿:夏林

Ten years ago, Amazon introduced the Kindle and established the appeal of reading on a digital device. Four years ago, Jeff Bezos and company rolled out the Echo, prompting millions of people to start talking to a computer.

Now Amazon is working on another big bet: robots for the home.

The retail and cloud computing giant has embarked on an ambitious, top-secret plan to build a domestic robot, according to people familiar with the plans. Codenamed “Vesta,” after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family, the project is overseen by Gregg Zehr, who runs Amazon’s Lab126 hardware research and development division based in Sunnyvale, Calif. Lab126 is responsible for Amazon devices such as the Echo speakers, Fire TV set-top-boxes, Fire tablets and the ill-fated Fire Phone.

The Vesta project originated a few years ago, but this year Amazon began to aggressively ramp up hiring. There are dozens of listings on the Lab 126 Jobs page for openings like “Software Engineer, Robotics” and “Principle Sensors Engineer.” People briefed on the plan say the company hopes to begin seeding the robots in employees’ homes by the end of this year, and potentially with consumers as early as 2019, though the timeline could change, and Amazon hardware projects are sometimes killed during gestation.

An Amazon spokesperson said the company doesn’t comment on “rumors and speculation.”

It’s unclear what tasks an Amazon robot might perform. People familiar with the project speculate that the Vesta robot could be a sort of mobile Alexa, accompanying customers in parts of their home where they don’t have Echo devices. Prototypes of the robots have advanced cameras and computer vision software and can navigate through homes like a self-driving car. Former Apple executive Max Paley is leading the work on computer vision. Amazon has also hired specialized mechanical engineers from the robotics industry.

The project is different than the robots designed by Amazon Robotics, a company subsidiary, in Massachusetts and Germany, people familiar with the project say. Amazon Robotics deploys robots in Amazon warehouses to move around goods and originated as a company called Kiva Systems, which Amazon acquired in 2012 for $775 million.

The promise of domestic robots that offer companionship or perform basic chores has tantalized the technology industry for decades. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, introduced the three-foot-tall, snowman-shaped Topo Robot back in 1983. Though it could be programmed to move around by an Apple II computer, it did little else and sold poorly. Subsequent attempts to produce useful robotic servants in the U.S., Japan and China over the years have performed only marginally better. iRobot Corp.’s Roomba, which only does one thing — vacuum — is the standout in the field and has sold more than 20 million units since 2002.

More recently, Sony and LG Electronics have shown interest in the category. In January at CES, LG showed off a robot called Cloi in a demonstration that failed multiple times. Sony demonstrated a new version of a robotic dog called Aibo, which it sold a version of until the mid-2000s after first unveiling the concept about 20 years ago. It doesn’t do much other than bark (although Aibo has been programmed to play soccer). The canine bot also costs $1,800, or about the same price as a real dog from a breeder.

Advances in computer vision technology, cameras, artificial intelligence and voice activation help make it feasible for Amazon to bring its robot to the marketplace. The retail giant has shown itself willing to partially subsidize the costs of its devices for Prime subscribers who buy more products and subscribe to services through its gadgets. That could also make such a product more affordable for mainstream consumers in the future.

The consumer robot market will be worth about $15 billion a year by 2023, according to an estimate from Research and Markets, which would be up from about $5.4 billion this year.

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