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Swipe to sort: Using this robotic recycling system is like playing a game of Fruit Ninja

One promising outcome of job automation may see machines not simply taking our work, but instead making our work easier. There are countless necessary but undesirable jobs around. Wouldn’t it be nice if machines could make these tasks a little bit better?

A startup called Jodone is using gaming technology to do just that, beginning with a pilot project at the Pope/Douglas waste-to-energy facility in Alexandria, Minnesota. Where humans once  sorted through trash and picked out recyclable materials by hand, robotic arms will grab the valuable waste and place it a designated bin.

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The robotic arms aren’t selecting items independently though. Across the facility, human workers watch waste roll down a conveyer belt and, using a touch screen, swipe paper, plastics, glass, aluminum, and tin items towards their respective spot on the screen. Then, back across the factory, the robots move the recyclables to their respective bins — a system that sees humans and machines working in harmony.

The click and swipe process used by Jodone was apparently inspired by Fruit Ninja: an immensely popular touch-screen game in which players use their fingers to slice up digital fruits. 

Jodone cofounder and CEO, Cole Parker, says the exercise allows workers to stay engaged without really dirtying their hands. “People like solving puzzles,” he told MIT Technology Review, “they like being mentally challenged.” Parker hopes the joint effort will be more interesting for workers and will generate additional profit as workers receive incentives for selecting and separating an above-average amount of recycling. The status estimates it can help generate $24 million in added revenue for waste facilities.

The system’s developers are currently creating an AI system that can learn from past swipes, to enable the software to identify valuable waste, according to MIT Technology Review. Though the robot will still need to wait for human approval, the system could be developed to perform the entire task independently. It seems this harmonious working relationship may not stand the test of emerging technology.