THE NEWEST MEMBER of Yelp’s security team wakes just after 8 pm, ready to begin its rounds.
It traverses the lobby, gliding over polished concrete toward a small recess in the corner, where it inspects the emergency exit tucked inside. Last year, burglars tried to breach the office by rending the door from the building, frame and all. The low-resolution camera mounted in the lobby saw nothing.
“We couldn’t see what was going on inside the alcove,” says Rick Lee, Yelp’s head of security, who joined me on my late-night visit to one of the company’s San Francisco offices. “But there was daylight and cold air coming through where they’d bent the door frame. A high definition camera would have spotted the light. A directional mic would have heard the noise. A FLIR infrared sensor would have flagged the temperature delta,” Lee says, with the punctilious air of a man who has spent more than a decade overseeing security at Silicon Valley firms like Uber, Apple, Google, and Amazon. “Cobalt has all three,” he says, gesturing toward his recent hire as it about-faces from the alcove and resumes its patrol. “It’s also mobile.”
Cobalt is one in a growing class of autonomous robots developed for spaces like malls, museums, and offices—the kinds of places that are more structured and less cluttered than, say, an apartment, but more dynamic and unpredictable than a warehouse or server room. Tug, an autonomous medical robot, delivers food and medications to hospital patients. Tally and Bossanova audit the shelves of grocery stores. And then there’s the Henn-na Hotel, an uncanny lodging in Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture staffed entirely by androidal assistants. Experts agree that commercial bots will soon take over many of the world’s blue-collar, high-turnover jobs. Less clear is how these robots should look and act, and the role we meatbags will play as stewards to our robot replacements.
Cobalt, developed by the Palo Alto startup of the same name, distinguishes itself from its peers in both respects. Each of its robotic sentries stands 5-feet 1-inch tall, and tapers from a big, blue ovular foundation to an ivory-colored top the size and shape of a badminton racquet head. Tetris-ed between its base and its crown lie more than 60 sensors and the computer parts required to run them, along with (what else?) AI and the machine learning and computer-vision algorithms to recognize people, places, and, yeah, temperature deltas. “We have the equivalent of what’s running in an autonomous car running on this robot,” says Cobalt Robotics CEO Travis Deyle.
However—and this is significant—you don’t see most of this hardware. A soft, mesh, cobalt-blue fabric envelopes the robot, hiding it all. Cobalt designed Cobalt to look capable, not humanoid; authoritative, but nonthreatening. On this front, the company’s collaboration with Yves Béhar—the A-list industrial designer behind products like Samsung’s gorgeous new television The Frame and, more infamously, the Juicero juicer—is evident. Lee says it reminds him of a piece of Herman Miller furniture. “Classic and understated,” he says, as we watch it scoot around Yelp’s 17,000-square-foot office. “You notice it, but it doesn’t dominate the room.” To me, it looks like a traffic cone with fashion sense.
Either way, that congenial vibe is one of two big things differentiating Cobalt from other commercial robots—especially ones from Knightscope, another Silicon Valley startup and the current leader in developing security bots. Knightscope’s flagship, the K5, started patrolling malls, offices, and schools in 2015, and looks pretty intimidating when it’s not nose-diving into fountains. Aggressive, even—like a cross between a Dalek and Bullet Bill. The upshot is that Knightscope’s robot resembles hired muscle, while Cobalt Robotics’ looks like the kind of machine you might ask for directions.
The second thing Cobalt has going for it is telepresence. Most of the time, Cobalt patrols autonomously, detecting people, dodging obstacles, and flagging anomalies on the fly. But if it spots something unusual, it alerts a remote operator. The robot can then ask its human partner questions like “Is this a person?” to improve its computer-vision algorithms, or allow that carbon-based lifeform to assume control of its movements and display their face on its forward-mounted touchscreen.
This is exactly what happens around 8:30 pm, halfway through the patrol route. Cobalt spots a woman sitting quietly at the far end of the office, staring at a computer screen. The robot alerts Shiloh Nordby, Cobalt Robotics’ lead pilot, who is overseeing an undisclosed number of robots from the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, some 35 miles away.
Lee and I watch from perhaps 40 feet away as Nordby takes control of the robot. He approaches the woman slowly, parking Cobalt a few feet to her right, just beyond her field of view.