Join Us May 3 For a Tour of the Future of Robotics

Robotics, like AI, is a field plagued by the chronic gap between science fiction and reality. Today’s robots don’t look or act anything like C-3PO, so most consumers lump them in with flying cars as one of 20th-century pop culture’s broken promises.

Well, they’re wrong. (About flying cars, too.) Working quietly behind the scenes, academic and industry engineers have, over the last decade, built robots with a stunning array of capabilities, from microsurgery to nursing assistance to airborne surveillance. Robots are even starting to turn up in our homes and offices—and not just in the form of vacuum cleaners. “The next big thing, folks, is robots,” says futurist Paul Saffo. “Comes out of nowhere, totally surprises consumers, on the cover of Time magazine…We have all the technology.”

Here at Xconomy, we agree, and we’re excited to announce our first-ever event focused exclusively on this next big thing. The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley and Beyond is a half-day forum scheduled for May 3, 2012, at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA. This unique event will bring together leading roboticists and robot-company executives from the Bay Area, Boston, and other hubs to highlight the most promising advances in the field, and to ask how the progress of recent years can be accelerated.

Why organize a robotics event in Silicon Valley, where innovation has historically focused on areas like semiconductors, software, and the Internet rather than robot hardware? Because of the region’s potential to contribute to the next set of big advances in robotics—a potential that’s only beginning to be tapped. One of our keynote speakers, CyPhy Works CEO Helen Greiner, knows a thing or two about fostering an ecosystem of robotics companies. Back in her days as chairman of iRobot, which she co-founded, Greiner was the organizer and guiding spirit of an informal “robotics cluster” around Boston. At our event she’ll share her thoughts about the ingredients that go into successful local collaborations between universities, research organizations, startups, big companies, and the investment community.

We’re also thrilled that Mick Mountz, CEO of North Reading, MA-based Kiva Systems, will be joining us. Kiva’s planning software and its fleets of nimble warehouse robots are transforming the business of logistics and fulfillment. “We turn the whole building into a random-access, dynamic storage and retrieval system,” Mountz has said.

And that’s just the beginning. Our speaker lineup also includes Steve Cousins, the CEO of local robotics leader Willow Garage, whose groundbreaking PR2 humanoid robot is providing researchers with a new platform for experimentation, so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they want to test a new sensor system or robot arm attachment. Brian Gerkey, Willow Garage’s director of open source development, will also be on hand to talk about the Robot Operating System, or ROS—Willow Garage’s bid to create a basic “stack” of robot control software to undergird robotics innovation, the same way open-source software like Linux, Apache, and MySQL, and languages like PHP and PERL created the foundation for the Web revolution.

SRI International, the host of our event, is supplying another great pair of speakers. Rich Mahoney, the institute’s director of robotics, will talk about SRI’s work in areas like biomimetic robots and telepresence surgery robots, and he’ll also bring us up to speed on the growth of Silicon Valley Robotics, an informal industry association working to advance local research and commercialization in robotics. And we’ll have a presentation from Charlie Duncheon, CEO of Grabit, an SRI spinoff company working to commercialize electroadhesion gripper technology.

Also joining us:

* Aaron Edsinger, the co-founder of San Francisco-based Meka Robotics, which makes precision robot hands, arms, and other parts for researchers

* Yoky Matsuoka, the MacArthur Prize-winning former director of the University of Washington’s Neurorobotics Laboratory, who has just joined the Silicon Valley-based home automation company Nest as vice president of technology

* A representative from Liquid Robotics, maker of the solar-powered Wave Glider robot for autonomous ocean exploration

* Tiffany Montague, who manages space initiatives at Google, including the Google Lunar X Prize, the $30 million prize program designed to encourage private exploration of the Moon. (I’ve interviewed prime ministers, CEOs, and Nobel laureates in my time, but this will be my first chance to speak in public with an Intergalactic Federation King Almighty and Commander of the Universe. Seriously, that’s the title on Montague’s Google business card.)

We’ll close out the afternoon with an interactive panel discussion asking why the Bay Area-birthplace of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the consumer Internet, and the smartphone-has long played second (or third) fiddle when it comes to robotics, lagging behind other innovation clusters around Boston and Pittsburgh. If that situation is to be turned around, the job will fall to the very companies and labs presenting on May 3—and also to the local venture community, which would do well to pay more attention to the sector. We hope you can join us—register now to get our “early ‘bot” rate.

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

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