UNLOADING LORRIES is wearisome for people, but hardly an intellectual challenge. For robots it is the reverse. Robots never tire. They do, however, have problems interpreting the data streaming in from the cameras and laser scanners that are their eyes. Seeing where one box in the back of a crowded lorry ends and another begins is second nature to a human being. But even the best artificial-vision systems struggle to cope.

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And that is just the start. The next question is what the robot should do with what it sees. The less tidy the contents, the greater the problem. Shrink-wrapped pallets of packages are one thing, the miscellaneous jumbles of objects handled by parcel-delivery businesses quite another. Cases may get wedged, or be fumbled. Or the robot may need to work out how to lift an irregular…

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