Robo Madness 2014 Takeaways: Jobs, Education, & Redefining Autonomy

In celebration of National Robotics Week, Xconomy brought together big hitters from across the space yesterday to chat about the future of robotics at Robo Madness, our third annual Silicon Valley robotics forum. Nearly 200 entrepreneurs, investors, engineers, and students showed up at SRI International to hear speakers from top robotics companies on both coasts. We’ll have a slide show next week, and you can check out the tweetstream from the event here. Meanwhile, here are some key takeaways:

On the importance of building successful robotics companies: As tech giants like Google and Amazon acquire and swallow smaller robotics startups, there’s anxiety about whether a robotics company can get big on its own. Fledgling companies and would-be robotics entrepreneurs need role models to follow, speakers said. “Becoming part of Google is a wonderful idea, but it might not be the best thing for the ecosystem,” says Aydin Senkut, founder and managing director of Felicis Ventures.

On remote work and telepresence: Opening keynoter Scott Hassan from Suitable Technologies and iRobot chief technology officer Paolo Pirjanian offered different visions of telepresence for the workplace. Hassan says he doesn’t think of Suitable’s Beam remote presence device as a robot, since there’s always a human driving it remotely. “Your presence is the most important thing you have. Being able to move that presence around is a pretty cool technology,” he says. Pirjanian says iRobot equipped its own remote presence platform, AVA, with quite a bit of robotic smarts, so that it can get to where it’s needed on its own. The choice comes down to how much of the navigation work you want to leave to the human user.

On the “Year of the Robot”: The New York Times’ John Markoff posed the question, when will be the year of the robot? The only consensus: we’re not there yet. “I totally believe in shades of gray,” says James Gosling, chief software architect at Liquid Robotics (and the father of the Java programming language). “Something like the year of the robot is only obvious in retrospect. We’re not even close.” But Frank Tobe, editor of the Robot Report and co-founder of the RoboStox exchange traded fund, sees some progress already. “When is the real robotic age going to occur? I think we’re on a spectrum that service robots—not industrial—service robots are blooming right now. And they’re going to continue. At present, this is a mostly American phenomenon.”

Unbounded Robotics' UBR-1 Robot.

Unbounded Robotics’ UBR-1 Robot.

On Big Data: The fire hose of data created by wearables and other technologies is just the beginning. “How much wealth has been created by monetizing data created by humans?” asks iRobot’s Pirjanian. “Imagine how much wealth can be created by data created by robots.”

On the definition of “robot”: Markoff asked one panel to define “robot” and while answers veered in different directions, everyone agreed: robotics is in its infancy. “We’re in the 70s or 80s of the PC era, and the ramifications are going to be profound,” says William Li, chairman and CEO of Knightscope. But Jason Calaiaro, mechanical/propulsion lead at Matternet, had a succinct definition. “The way that I would define robot perhaps is a machine that can perceive its environment and react upon that perception,” he says.

On jobs: It’s the great question of the modern era—will robots displace human jobs? “There are certainly winners and losers,” says David Mindell, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of the history of technology at MIT. “But half of the things people are doing were not even things people were doing 10-20 years ago.” Our definitions of work and jobs always evolve alongside technology, Mindell argued.

On robotics in education: Play-i’s Vikas Gupta, Barobo’s Graham Ryland, and Origami Robotics’s Aubrey Shick all agreed: while robots for teaching use should be fun and educational for students, it’s just as important that they be easy for teachers and caretakers to use. All three companies are working to make it easier for teachers to incorporate their technology into the classroom. “It’s not fair to expect teachers to go get a computer science degree,” Ryland says. “That’s not their focus. We’re working to make it more accessible to more people.”

On drones: As government debates the regulations that will govern flying robots, CyPhy Works CEO Helen Greiner sees a very specific timeline for how drone applications will roll out. Today, they’re used primarily for entertainment and recording purposes, but by 2015/2016, she says, they’ll be used for protection and inspection, by both military and commercial users. By 2017/2018 they’ll be used for evaluating and managing—observing structures, and sending drones to do jobs too dangerous for workers. By 2019, transportation—for online retailers, local stores, even restaurants. Some people have argued that Amazon Prime Air is just a publicity stunt; Greiner thinks the company is serious about it.

On putting robots in our homes: “We’re all unique butterflies,” says Melonee Wise, cofounder and CEO of Unbounded Robotics. “All of our homes are representations of that. And trying to catch all those edge cases, when trying to put robots into our homes, there’s a lot of unique challenges there.” Though institutions like assisted living facilities would be easier because of specific floor plans and mandatory Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, it’s still a tough case. For now, robots will probably perform better in industrial settings and warehouses.

On autonomy and human intervention: Though sci-fi movies might highlight a world in which robots act on their own, MIT’s Mindell argues that the more serious the applications performed by robots, the more likely humans themselves will want the ability to take over. “As you get closer to a world where somebody might get killed or you really have to rely on it, people tend to put human interventions in more places,” he says.

On talent: If this is but the beginning of a massive robotics industry, it’s critical to make sure a trained workforce is in place to fill jobs. “We must educate youth to be able to take on that challenge, but I’m completely confident that we will,” Pirjanian says. In the meantime, Senkut says, it’s imperative to make sure that tech giants like Amazon and Google don’t use their unlimited resources to suck in the limited talent pool.

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