A robot on display at Plus One Robotics.
A robot on display at Plus One Robotics. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On average a package gets touched by 21 people before it reaches its final destination, Plus One Robotics co-founder and CEO Erik Nieves said.

“You are the 22nd touch when you receive that package on your doorstep,” Nieves said.

Plus One Robotics’ artificially intelligent packaging robot, which works along with human employees to process packages for shipping to lessen the frequency of human handling, is an example of the kind of product drawing attention since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the adoption of AI was already taking place, Nieves and other AI developers are seeing their sales grow and demand for AI capabilities jump forward.

For Port San Antonio-based Plus One’s packaging robot, Nieves attributes the acceleration in interest to consumers wanting fewer people touching their packages and companies wanting to better socially distance their employees.

Using robots as spacers between human workers seemed like a good investment for companies to make sooner than later, Nieves explained.

Because adopting robotics and AI takes considerable financial, human, and technological resources to implement, a company’s decision to adopt these technologies is usually a part of its long-term strategic plan. But the current health crisis has sped up the timeline, said Mark Leung, associate professor of management science and statistics at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Leung said he believes the outbreak caused some companies to adopt lower-level tech to deal with the sudden surge in demand and sudden shortage of labor because of stay at home orders.

“For example, fast food [restaurants] told the customers to use apps ordering online and have Grubhub deliver orders,” Leung said. “This is still an adoption of robotics and AI in the real world, but at a slightly less advanced and automated level. Keep in mind that app is a form of ‘software robot’ and AI machine.”

Leung has been studying the adoption rate of technology and AI since January, when the coronavirus outbreaks began. He said it is likely the current crisis will make companies both small and large rethink their business models.

After putting low-level AI technology to work out of necessity, small companies will be more likely to keep these technologies in their model moving forward, he said. For larger companies, the adoption of advanced AI and robotics was planned and may continue to be a longer-term process, but the adoption of lower-level AI likely will have been faster, he said.

“AI will be used extensively to replace humans to do customer scheduling, order taking, or even delivery routing plans,” he said. “Once this is in place and proven successful and cost efficient, replacement of some permanent positions in these areas may not be avoidable.”

Larger companies will invest in retention training for their lower-level employees so they can learn to manage machines and work alongside them, Leung said.

The City of San Antonio’s adoption of a Q&A chat bot on its COVID-19 information web page is one example of AI being used to complement existing jobs during the pandemic.

As the coronavirus spread, staff members in the City’s health department received a flood of calls, said Craig Hopkins, director of the City’s information technology services department. He installed the chat bot to respond to frequently asked questions posed by residents to try to help take some of the strain off the City’s staff.

While Hopkins initially programmed the bot to answer 10 questions, he added more to include questions related to the pandemic such as how to pay a water bill without going into an office or where to get a loan application for a small business.

“What we’ve done is really provide a machine or robot in front of a human being who can meet your need for information without having to talk to a human,” Hopkins said.

During the pandemic, San Antonio AI firms such as FunnelAI and Quickpath have adjusted to focus on what clients want to fill immediate needs.

Sridhar Kamma, a cofounder of FunnelAI, said the company’s model has pivoted considerably since the start of the pandemic. Normally, its AI technology helps connect consumers who post about a need with a company that can help. For example, if someone posts on Facebook about needing a new car, the AI picks up the post and sends it to car dealerships that use FunnelAI. The dealership can then reach out to the potential client and invite them into the dealership for a test drive.

Since the start of the pandemic, the AI is still being used to help connect people, but to services such as nearby clinics or COVID-19 testing sites, Kamma said.

Alex Fly, cofounder of Quickpath, said he thinks the adoption of AI at a faster rate will be a trend that continues even after pandemic restrictions lift. Quickpath helps companies build and customize their own AI applications for in-house needs.

“We’ve seen an overall uptick of the appreciation of [AI] tech in the industry,” said Suja Kamma, cofounder of FunnelAI and Sridhar’s sister.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.