Building a Robotics Ecosystem: Q&A with UC San Diego’s Al Pisano

It’s been almost a year since UC San Diego and Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) confirmed an initiative was underway to create an ambitious robotics institute that would include a new incubator for robotics startups.

The effort was conceived as a way to put San Diego on the map as an up-and-coming innovation hub in robotics, create inroads for Qualcomm’s wireless technologies, and enable UC San Diego to join the ranks of elite universities already leading the nation in robotics R&D. But it’s hard to measure how far the initiative has progressed since last year’s splash. Both UC San Diego and Qualcomm have maintained radio silence.

Among some insiders, though, there are don’t-attribute-this-to-me reports that Qualcomm intends to house the robotics incubator itself, with the curriculum and mentoring services provided by Techstars, the Boulder, CO-based accelerator that already operates a half-dozen accelerator programs on behalf of such companies as Microsoft, Sprint, and Disney. Many details are still being worked out, however, and neither Qualcomm nor Techstars founder David Cohen would comment.

Leaders at UC San Diego also declined to say much, although they seem closer to raising the curtain on at least some aspects of their efforts at the Jacobs School of Engineering. For one thing, an international forum on “contextual robotics” to be held at UC San Diego on Oct. 10 includes a veritable Who’s Who of innovation leaders in robotics. Albert “Al” Pisano, dean of the engineering school, said in a recent interview (our Q&A is below) that the robotics forum “is a key part of our effort to reach out to technologists and thought leaders” as part of the effort to build the new robotics institute and “catalyze” a robotics ecosystem, including manufacturing.

DARPA Robotics Challenge (artist's concept courtesy of DARPA)

DARPA Robotics Challenge (artist’s concept courtesy of DARPA)

The featured speakers include Segway creator Dean Kamen of New Hampshire’s DEKA Research & Development Corp; Gill Pratt, program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) who oversees the Robotics Challenge, a $2-million prize competition; Rod Brooks, co-founder, chairman, and CTO of Boston-based Rethink Robotics; Vijay Kumar, a leading roboticist at the University of Pennsylvania who is best known for his work in controlling robot swarms; and Matt Grob, CTO and executive vice president for Qualcomm Technologies, and a key player in Qualcomm’s strategy to develop new markets in robotics.

In anticipation of the event, I submitted some questions to Pisano about the robotics initiative and related matters. His lightly edited answers are below:

Xconomy: Has UCSD launched its proposed robotics institute yet?

Al Pisano: No, not yet. We are in both a listening phase and a capacity-building phase for our future institute for contextual robotics systems.

X: What does contextual robotics mean?

AP: Contextual robotics is the middle of the “three Cs of robotics” as described by Vijay Kumar. The three Cs are communication, context, and contact. My feeling is that research related to context is not being fully addressed in academia, though it’s central to the future of robotics. Addressing context will unlock next-generation robotics—systems that are able to determine the context of a situation involving humans, determine a course of action, and then accomplish that action. Contextual robotics systems integrate mobile platforms empowered with sense, machine learning, adaptive control, communications and locomotion functions. This robotics technology could include collaborating robots working toward a common goal. We are taking a broad approach to this topic, looking at it from the perspective of a diverse group of engineers, cognitive scientists, and social scientists.

X: Who conceived the contextual robotics event?

AP: This event is part of a campus-wide move to get more involved in robotics research and education. There are many people at UC San Diego working to develop a stronger robotics focus on campus. But in terms of the October 10 robotics forum, the driving force has been the organizing committee and more than a dozen UC San Diego faculty.

X: Why is the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering holding this event? What are you trying to accomplish?

AP: The robotics forum is a key part of our effort to reach out to technologists and thought leaders from a wide range of industries in the San Diego region. This is part of the planning and building process for our contextual robotics institute.

Al Pisano

Al Pisano

San Diego is ready to make big advances in contextual robotics and related technologies. Nearly all the pieces are in place. A number of people and organizations are going in this direction organically, but unless you get a world-class university aligned with industry, aligned with students, aligned with the markets, you don’t get a major surge forward. UC San Diego is joining the fray to help San Diego achieve this forward surge.

X: How does this event reflect efforts to build a robotics curriculum at UC San Diego?

AP: As this community works together more closely, a more robust robotics ecosystem will start to form in San Diego. Once that level of collaboration between all the players gets established, we will have a strong place to work from in terms of identifying the region’s robotics workforce and research needs. UC San Diego in general and the Jacobs School of Engineering in particular, will then be in a better position to address these needs through education and research programs.

In terms of curriculum specifics, we plan to add options for robotics themes to degrees at both the undergraduate and master’s level at the Jacobs School of Engineering; but we are still working on the details. And that brings us back to events like the October 10 forum. The right players need to be working together in order to develop and sustain a robotics ecosystem in San Diego.

X: Who are the individual tech leaders who are directing or guiding robotics innovation in San Diego?

AP: There is so much happening, I can’t possibly know about every effort. But speaking in general terms, I think the major players in industries like communications, defense and biotechnology are going to play a key role. Entrepreneurs, startups, research institutes, the military, and public sector agencies all serve as important players as well. Within this environment, I see UC San Diego as an accelerator, a catalyst.
X: What needs to happen for robotics to flourish here to the extent it has in the Bay Area, Boston, and Pittsburgh? Are there any key ingredients missing?

AP: The first thing San Diego is missing is a large academic institute focused on developing and sustaining the robotics ecosystem in the region. We are in the process of plugging that in. The Jacobs School of Engineering educates the engineering workforce of the future and develops technology leaders for the region. We pursue tough research challenges that are both relevant and fundamental. We are already teaching classes and running laboratories related to robotics for undergraduates and graduate students. We will be expanding and adding to those.

San Diego already has a lot of things going for it in terms of robotics, including major industry players and big employers that are focused on robotics in many different ways. The region also has the advantage of a dynamic advanced-manufacturing sector both here in San Diego county and right across the border in Tijuana. Add the profound military presence and region’s robotics startups and entrepreneurs and you have the makings of a very strong robotics cluster.
The fact that San Diego has all these players and resources already gives the region a possible advantage over the more established robotics clusters in the country. The potential for robotics in San Diego is huge.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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