Hey, Silicon Valley: Wake Up and Smell the Robots

Investors and entrepreneurs in the Bay Area pride themselves on being the first to identify and exploit new technologies with huge commercial potential. And they’ve earned the right to be a little cocky. Since 1960, Silicon Valley companies have been the pacesetters in four consecutive infotech revolutions (semiconductors, personal computers, the Internet, and mobile).

It’s strange, then, that the Bay Area innovation community seems content to let the next big technology revolution happen elsewhere.

I’m talking about robotics, the subject of Xconomy’s next big public forum on May 3. After decades stuck behind bars—or rather, behind safety cages on assembly-line floors—robots are finally getting out on parole, and are starting to mix with humans in a range of real-world situations. Just look at the iRobot vacuum cleaners battling our dust bunnies, the self-driving cars Google is sending up and down Highway 101, the InTouch health medical telepresence bots rounding in hospitals, or the prototype rescue and disaster-response robots that inspired DARPA’s latest Grand Challenge competition. It is clear that the developed world is reaching some kind of threshold, and that before this decade is out, many of us will be living, working, and driving alongside robots.

But for the most part, this is a market that’s being opened up by companies outside Silicon Valley. Boston boasts a major cluster of robotics companies (iRobot, Kiva Systems, Bluefin Robotics, Boston Dynamics, Foster-Miller, etc.) and so does Pittsburgh (Carnegie Robotics, Cardiorobotics, RE2, Robomatter, etc.). Even Southern California has its share of bot makers (InTouch Health, Evolution Robotics). But while Silicon Valley has seen one or two big success stories in robotics—notably industrial robot maker Adept Technology and Intuitive Surgical, maker of the Da Vinci microsurgery robot used today in more than half of all prostatectomies in the U.S.—the local robotics industry is still mostly a story waiting to happen.

Part of the blame can be placed on Sand Hill Road investors, who’ve been too busy chasing startups in areas like games, social networking, enterprise software, and e-commerce optimization to pay much attention to actual hardware lately. It’s a significant blind spot, because these are the technologies that will determine how we work, how we get around, and how other things gets made. “It’s pretty clear that Boston has a savvy group of venture investors who know how to look at robotics,” says Rich Mahoney, director of the robotics program at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA. “But the Silicon Valley venture community doesn’t understand the field that well.”

Investors haven’t been the only missing ingredient. Robotics in the Bay Area has also lagged due to talent shortages, a lack of collaboration between companies, a dearth of options for engineers looking to change companies, and other systemic limitations that aren’t seen in the local software and Internet sectors. For the most part, Bay Area roboticists have been laboring in lonely silence, in garages, university labs, or industrial parks scattered from Berkeley to San Francisco to Palo Alto to Pleasanton.

But all that may be starting to change. Mahoney at SRI is one of the organizers of Silicon Valley Robotics, an informal industry association whose first major meeting in January was attended by more than 100 people representing 30 to 40 organizations. This month, to help celebrate National Robotics Week, the group threw a robot block party at Stanford University’s Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab that attracted 1,500 visitors. “There was a solid community there,” says Mahoney. “The group’s role in the valley is getting established, at least at a modest level. And there are more companies that have emerged.”

I’ve had robots on the brain lately because I’ve been preparing for The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley and Beyond, the event we’ll stage this Thursday on the SRI campus. One of our goals for the event—which we designed with Mahoney’s input—is to assemble ideas from inside and outside the Bay Area about what robotics researchers and entrepreneurs here can do to maintain and increase the early momentum that Mahoney is talking about.

To the extent that this momentum is rooted in old-fashioned technological progress, it may gather on its own. Like all areas touched by computing, robotics benefits from advances in semiconductor manufacturing. “At Precise Automation in San Jose, they now sell vision systems for less than $3,000 that I used to sell at Adept Technology for $25,000; that is just Moore’s Law, applied,” says Charlie Duncheon, a veteran of the local robotics scene who now heads Grabit, a maker of novel gripping tools for industrial and materials-handling robots. On top of that, concepts from the open source movement, which gave rise to so many of the other key components of the Internet explosion, are finally … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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