Our second annual robotics event in Boston was a huge success—and a lot of fun. It covered a vast amount of ground: not just the latest advances in robot technologies and businesses, but also the rise of artificial intelligence in tech companies and the mainstream vernacular.
Big thanks to Google, our hosts, for providing a fantastic space and top-notch support. And thanks to our event sponsors: our platinum sponsor, U.K. Trade & Investment; gold sponsors Cirtronics, Harmonic Drive, iRobot, and Mintz Levin; and silver sponsor BDO.
Special thanks to Keith Spiro Photography for the photos. And of course a huge thank-you to our speakers and attendees, who made the event memorable from beginning to end—see the slideshow above.
Now, on to a few takeaways (and speaker attributions), while they’re fresh in my head:
1. Don’t call it A.I. First of all, no one agrees on what the term means anymore. Second, it’s more useful and accessible to talk about what problems can be solved, rather than use technical labels that can alienate or confuse users. What’s important is that a machine can make recommendations or avoid obstacles, not that it uses deep learning. (Rob May of Talla and Roger Matus of Neurala.)
2. Call it a “pervasive” rewrite of all tech products. Robotics and A.I.-based technologies are getting to the point where they are everywhere—in our devices, cars, homes, and offices. Smart investors, entrepreneurs, and researchers are exploring ways to create new markets for services that help people interact and collaborate better with machines. (Phil Libin of General Catalyst, Daniela Rus of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and David Mindell of Humatics.)
3. When the key problems shift from technology to design, the time is right. Conversational interfaces like Alexa and Siri hint at a new wave of growth, as people figure out new use cases and business models for machines—maybe akin to the iPhone’s debut in 2007. At the same time, more and more physical robot technologies are becoming “good enough.” (Scott Eckert of Rethink Robotics, Matt Revis of Jibo, and Phil Libin.)
4. It’s the data, not the algorithms, that hold the power. We’ve heard that line ever since “big data” was the buzzword. But the message remains the same. Whoever owns the data—think Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix—has the ability to capitalize on that data. That means startups have to be extra careful where they choose to compete and on what types of data. (Jana Eggers of Nara Logics and Roger Matus—though Sentenai’s Rohit Gupta might challenge the premise.)
5. Selling robots is still a challenge—but new opportunities await. Smart homes of the future will need a robot to run them. Drones need better software and services. Biomedicine and rehab are still open markets. Robotics is a tough, competitive business, but startups and big companies alike are finding increasingly specific problems to solve as the technologies continue to improve. (Colin Angle of iRobot, Helen Greiner from CyPhy Works, and Conor Walsh from Harvard University’s Biodesign Lab.)
Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com.