A top exec at Softbank-backed robotics startup Brain Corp says says the pandemic has made customers ‘less afraid of the impact of robots’ as they help workers clean and restock shelves at stores like Walmart and Kroger

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  • Millions of jobs were lost over the last few months as the coronavirus decimated the US economy. 
  • That’s prompting concerns among labor advocates, workers, and others that firms could seek to replace some of those roles with automated tools like robots. 
  • But an exec at SoftBank-backed robotics startup Brain Corp. paints a different vision of the future where robots work alongside human employees instead of replacing them. 
  • Usage of Brain Corp’s  cleaning robots in stores like Walmart grew 24% in the the second quarter of 2020, while and daytime usage grew 68%. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Millions of jobs were lost in the US over the last few months as the coronavirus pandemic forced companies to undergo mass-layoffs. 

That’s prompting concern among labor advocates, workers, and others that firms could seek to replace some of those positions with autonomous tools like robots instead of bringing workers back. 

But an executive at one of the technology companies paving the way in robotics paints a different picture of the future: One where robots increasingly work alongside humans, freeing them up to tackle less mundane or dangerous tasks. 

Brain Corp., the SoftBank-backed startup that builds the software for robots in use at companies like Walmart, Kroger, and Simon Property Group says that it saw a 24% increase in usage of its technology among customers (particularly retailers and hospitals) in the second quarter of 2020. 

Many firms, for example, have more stringent cleaning protocols in-place, including requirements on how long and how often certain spaces need to be cleaned. With robots, businesses can program those benchmarks into the system and easily verify compliance once the task is over. 

“We are in a much better situation to provide customers with the data they need to measure against their clean compliance standards,” vice president Phil Duffy told Business Insider. 

Brain Corp. has also seen a shift inwhenits customers are using the robots: During the pandemic, Brain Corp. reported a 68% increase in day-time usage, signaling to Duffy a broader acceptance of the use of the technology among both businesses and consumers. 

“Customers are now less afraid of the impact of robots. Now, they’re really keen on showing their customers that they’re taking all the steps necessary to keep them safe,” he said. 

That’s enabled janitors to focus more on the harder-to-clean areas, like doorknobs, for example, while also opening up the opportunity for those typically lower-level positions to take on more important tasks. 

With minimal education, for example, janitors can be in charge of programming and overseeing the robots — given they have the deepest knowledge of the cleaning protocols in a facility. 

Outside of cleaning, Brain Corp.’s systems also support robots that can autonomously bring goods from the backroom of stores, making it easier for associates to restock shelves — tech that Duffy says came in particular handy when consumers rushed out to stock-up on supplies at the start of the outbreak. 

That’s turning employees from basic shelf-stockers to inventory managers that can spend time making more important decisions around products. 

“Retailers now have a scenario where the stores are cleaner,” Duffy said. “They have a scenario where they understand what’s out of stock and what needs to be brought in, and they’re able to use technology to improve their shelf-stocking capabilities.”

Overall, Brain Corp’s robots have cleaned 28 billion square feet. The company raised $36 million in April and is valued at $536 million, according to PitchBook.

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