At an office in San Francisco, if you drop a coffee cup in a robotic waste bin, the machine will automatically sort the cup for recycling.
The office is one of the first to use the technology, called TrashBot, from a startup called CleanRobotics that is trying to solve a fundamental challenge in recycling: Even when someone is diligently trying to reduce waste, there's a good chance they're recycling wrong.
"The idea was really born out of frustration," says Charles Yhap, cofounder and CEO of CleanRobotics, which is a semifinalist in the current IBM Watson AI XPRIZE.
He points to the example of a store like Whole Foods, where anyone who eats at the salad bar then has to figure out which bin to use for their fork and box and cup.
"I'll eat my food and I go to throw something away and I'm confronted with an array of waste bins, and it's just so confusing—everywhere you go, the rules are slightly different, and I'm still not sure that I'm doing it correctly."
He thought that technology could help. "We started looking at the diminishing costs of sensors and robotic components and the increasing accessibility of algorithms and AI systems and we thought, maybe we can build something that does this better than people," he says.
It helped that current bins are already expensive—a single set in an airport might cost $1,200. "These are just shiny metal tubes that don't do anything for you. So we thought we could build a robot that is price competitive and adds a ton more value."