In perhaps the most prestigious international prize for artificial intelligence, Pittsburgh has more finalists than any other city in the world. Of the final 10 — chosen from among 147 total contending teams — two are from Pittsburgh: CleanRobotics and Marinus Analytics.

“The IBM Watson AI XPRIZE is a four-year competition, challenging teams from around the world to come up with the most impactful solutions to grand challenges of any kind, using artificial intelligence,” explains Kenny Chen, executive director of the Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology, and an XPRIZE Ambassador.

Marinus Analytics helps law enforcement combat human trafficking online by using artificial intelligence, predictive modeling, machine learning and geospatial analysis — giving detectives the tools to find specific missing persons and apprehend their exploiters more effectively. (Read more about them here.)

“Marinus was already applying their Traffic Jam (facial recognition) technologies, originally used to track down sex trafficking activities, and started applying it to the opioid epidemic — and how illicit drug sales are being managed,” says Chen. “The XPRIZE judges don’t just see the current impact, but the potential they have as they scale into the future.”

FaceSearch at work. Photo courtesy of Marinus Analytics.

CleanRobotics builds the TrashBot — a robotic trash bin that automatically separates recyclables from landfill-bound trash.

“The idea was born out of frustration, says CleanRobotics CEO Charles Yhap. “If you’ve ever gone to a grocery store and eaten from the hot bar … and go to throw your waste away, it’s just really confusing. I can stare at the signs and still don’t know if I’m doing it correctly. And so we started looking at that experience, and the diminishing cost of sensor components and computers. Maybe we could build a machine that does this?”

It was not a problem that was easy to solve. One fact about trash cans stuck out, though.

“The turning point for us was to look at the price of traditional waste receptacles, which are just crazy expensive,” notes Yhap. “The ones at the airport are $1,200. For shiny metal tubes. At the Denver airport, they’re $3,000. Compared to that, we thought we could build a robot that does it (recycling) better than people, and costs about the same.”

Anything can be thrown into the trash, which makes this especially hard to solve.

“There’s a lot of nuanced rules to recycling,” says Tanner Cook, CleanRobotics’ co-founder and vice president of engineering. “Whether a bottle has a cap on it, or whether it has liquid — and how much liquid is left in it — those things really matter when it comes to recycling.  So being able to develop a system to recognize those things, and then sort based upon them, was difficult to do.”

TrashBot assembly. Photo courtesy of CleanRobotics.

Another problem is that recycling rules vary widely from place to place.

“Let’s say you run an airport or a convention center, and you have a really transient population coming through, people from all over the world, for example,” says Yhap. “And everywhere they’re from, the rules for recycling are going to be different. With our system, you don’t have to undertake a public education system to tell them what’s going to be recycling (and what’s not). It’s just a software update for us.”

Two TrashBots are already in service at PPG Paints Arena, and at two Pittsburgh offices. Others are in operation in Australia, North Carolina and San Francisco. Soon, they’ll be in Taiwan and China.

CleanRobotics has “a handful” of employees at its East Liberty headquarters, and about 20 contractors.

This is the right spot for CleanRobotics for a few reasons.

“Pittsburgh is a fantastic place,” says Yhap. “It has phenomenal talent on the technical side coming out of CMU and Pitt, and a really supportive entrepreneurial environment. There’s a ton of accelerators and mentors that give selflessly, and are willing to help people trying to do big things.”

“It’s also far, far cheaper than San Francisco to start a business,” adds Cook.

They’re already developing newer versions of TrashBot for other roles.

“We’re working on units that will be able to separate into more than just landfill and recycling,” says Yhap. “TrashBot Zero will be able to separate into three and four streams. We’re also working on retrofittable solutions for apartment buildings and office spaces, as well as more affordable, smaller versions for areas with lighter foot traffic.”

The evolution of TrashBot. Photo courtesy of CleanRobotics.

The XPRIZE offers a $5 million award that’s sponsored by IBM Watson. The first-place winner will get $3 million, second place receives $1 million and third place will get $500,000. The remaining semifinalists will all receive $15,000.

The other finalists hail from places like Australia, Israel, Germany and Montreal. Three finalists will be announced after a semifinalist competition at TED’s New York headquarters on Feb. 11. The final winners will be announced in front of a live and online audience at the TED2020 stage in April.

Pittsburgh’s strength in this kind of competition shouldn’t be surprising, says Chen.

“We have the benefit of a long history of innovation here, especially when it comes to AI and robotics,” he notes. “People have been researching AI and robotics here for decades, dating back to the 1950s. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. We’re also coming at this with a lot of energy, from seeing Pittsburgh’s resurgence — following the previous industrial economic collapse — finding new legs and opportunities in this innovation economy.”

“Pittsburgh helped build the world once. We can do it again.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...