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Installing treasure in trash

Installing treasure in trash

Hassan and Vivek have co-created Oscar — the robot who helps you sort out waste

By Surbhi Gogia

Recycling is much more complicated than we think. Do you know the majority of the waste that we think we recycle, does not end up in a recycling facility? Reason — we are not sorting it right. One coffee cup, for instance, in a wrong bin can contaminatethe entire bin and that bin end might now have to end up in a landfill. Hassan Murad and Vivek Vyas, two SFU Mechatronics Engineers, have come up with an intelligent solution. That intelligent solution is to use artificial intelligence (AI) to help us sort out our waste. They have invented Oscar the Robot — an AI-powered visual sorting system that automatically identifies recycling from trash and instructs users on how to sustainably dispose of their waste.

Recently it was installed at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey Campus. Installing Oscar supports the university’s commitment to the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) calls to action. Through the ISCN network of nearly 100 post-secondary institutions, SFU is working with other leading institutions to exchange information, ideas and best practices to promote sustainability initiatives across campus.

Hassan and Vivek, originally from Pakistan and India, grew up in Dubai. They both were concerned about increasing trash problemsnot only in their home countries but alsoaround the world. Hassan feels, that recycling our trash is the need of the hour. On one hand, the third world and developing countries do not have enough mechanisms to recycle, on the other hand, developed countries are extravagant when it comes to creating trash. “Both of us have seen the problem of trash when we were growing up — increasing mountains of landfills, trash left on streets. We were driven to make some positive change in the world and we decided to do something about it,” says Hassan.

Once they started researching, the numbers just blew up their mind.  “We found that 98% of the world’s waste, is not recycled. It ends up in landfills, incineration chambers sent to third world countries and eventually finding its way into the oceans. This is primarily due to the high level of contaminants found in recyclables, making previously clean material practically unrecyclable.”

Vivek says that the reason is not public or institutions. “All of us are making our best efforts to recycle. But there is increasing complexity of different material that goes beyond layman’s understanding of sorting out trash. Also, all regions and places have different recycling which makes recycling a complex process. If, in one building, a coffee cup goes in recycling, in another building you are asked to trash it in the green bin,” he explains.

To make recycling simple, Hassan and Vivek came up with the idea to invent Oscar. A signature product of Intuitive AI, a startup founded by these SFU Mechatronic Systems Engineering students, Oscar uses a display screen and powerful AI camera to recognize varied items within the hands of users, i.e, a plastic cup, used paper napkins, empty snack chips bag, biodegradable spoon. Through advanced computer vision research and enhanced machine learning algorithms, Oscar is trained to detect partially visible items as well as recognize a variety of body postures of identifiable approaching users. “It can even detect whether a coffee cup is half-filled by detecting the posture of your hand. It will then ask you to empty the cup before recycling,” he says.

The aim, Hassan says, is to eliminatetrash and create a “zero waste world, which now may seem a farfetched idea, but is “100% achievable” if we measure what we are wasting. “If you had asked 50 years ago was it possible to cut down on electricity consumption in homes, it was difficultbecause we didn’t have a way to measure it. But now we have developed sensors to measure, store and save electricity during off-peak hours. In the same way, we need some way to measure what we generate if we want to reduce it. That’s where Oscar comes in.”

Hassan argues that there have been proposals to create robots for sorting out the trash at the recycling facilities. “But the only trash that goes to waste management facilities is the clean trash that does not get rejected at the source. We have to go one step ahead of creating that clean trash. If we empower human intelligence to recycle right, we will create recyclable waste and hence a zero-waste world. That’s exactly what Oscar would do.”

Oscar is all set to empower human intelligence with the help of artificial intelligence.

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