Robots doing human things are funny. They just are. And this tomato-picking robot from Panasonic is no exception, especially when it screws up and drops a perfectly good tomato on the floor.
The machine, which doesn't currently have a name (but your humble author has suggested TomAuto, the royalties for which will presumably keep her in tomatoes for life), is in its third iteration – though our visit to Panasonic's robotics lab in Japan for their 100th anniversary was the first time any of the world's media had been allowed a look at it.
It will no doubt please Gizmodo UK's enormous audience of tomato pickers to hear that it's not actually very good. We're not being mean: Panasonic themselves admit it's got a fair way to go yet. They're still testing and refining, so as tomatoes go, this one's still pretty green.
Still, the TomAuto's come a long way since its first generation. Equipped with two cameras – one for sensing colour and one for location – the robot is designed to spot a ripe tomato, even if it's got leaves in front of it, then accurately detach and bag it. For some reason this process amuses us, possibly because it's ridiculous that a machine that cost many millions to develop does something as daft as this.
The first gen robot only managed to pick 10 tomatoes an hour, which is... not great. It actually hooked a tomato every 30 seconds, but dropped a whole lot of them. The second gen got it down to 20 seconds, and the third gen picks one every 10 seconds. But it only has a 50% success rate, so instead of six 'matoes a minute (which is a measurement we never thought we'd use), it only gets three.
But, you ask, isn't that still better than human pickers? Because surely the end goal here is to replace our inefficient, fleshy selves?
Well, no. It's not better. The robot picks 180 tomatoes an hour, and humans pick eight hundred. So there's a very long way to go yet.
However, a human tomato-picker needs breaks, and time off, and weekends, and relatively short shifts. Robots – until they rise up and overthrow us – require none of these. The Automato (backup name) can pick day and night, seven days a week, and never calls in hungover.
If that sounds a bit Orwellian, the reason it's been designed is that there are labour shortages in agriculture, so it's not necessarily replacing a person at this point. Just filling in for someone who'd rather chase their dream of YouTube stardom than do some good, honest greenhouse work.
The robot is actually kind of human-like, although it doesn't look it. It has two 'eyes' (Panasonic Lumix cameras), a 'hand' (loops for harvesting the fruit), 'feet' for moving around on (a set for concrete and a set for the rails between rows of plants, although a human still has to push it at the moment), and a brain in the form of an AI-enhanced processing unit. Said AI was fed 10,000 images of tomatoes in order to teach it how to recognise the right ones to pick.
In theory, it spots a ripe tomato, moves its 'hand' towards it, grabs it with a loop, snaps the peduncle (the truly hilarious name for the stem), and then the tomato falls down a long tube that looks like it's made from winter tights, and into the machine for sorting.
What actually happens quite a lot of the time is that it just completely fails:
Or it successfully picks the tomato, then throws it on the floor.
Obviously, that's not ideal for Panasonic or the farm, but it's great for us humans, who get to point and laugh smugly. Until we realise that soon, the tomatoes on the floor will be us.