Robots Uncaged At Xconomy’s Robo Madness West

“Would you trust your life to a robotic technology?” Restoration Robotics CEO Jim McCollum asked a crowd full of engineers who have invested their careers in the fast-moving field of automating intelligent actions formerly done only by humans.

McCollum himself recently entrusted his scalp and his coiffure, at least, to a robot hair transplantation suite made by his company, and the fine hairs were just beginning to sprout from his redistributed follicles when he explained the technique at Xconomy’s annual Robo Madness West conference in Menlo Park on Tuesday.

San Jose, CA-based Restoration Robotics’ automated system, ARTAS, takes follicles from the back of the head that will produce thick hairs permanently, and inserts them at precise angles and depths along the patient’s new hairline to simulate natural growth, McCollum says. That automated surgery system is part of a wave of robotic technologies popping up in cars, oceans, hotels, schools, and in the air just over our heads, as other Robo Madness speakers demonstrated.

Those technologies include follow-me drones, tireless processors of dreary back-office chores, and a telepresence robot that propels your iPad (showing your virtual face) around your office so you can work and trade water cooler jokes with your colleagues even when you’re home sick.

Robots are coming out of the factory to mingle with the rest of us, though we might mistake them for something like a pedestal for a flower arrangement. That’s sort of what Santa Clara, CA-based company Savioke’s Relay robot looks like when it’s at rest at the Cupertino hotel where it’s been working for about seven months. When it’s on the move, the Relay glides serenely past milling travelers and luggage carts in hotel corridors to deliver items such as a fresh toothbrush to a guest who forgot to pack one, Savioke CEO Steve Cousins says.

How long will it be before the simple Savioke errand runner is followed by a human-like valet that can do all our housework and cheer us up when we get home from work?

Before that can happen, engineers will have to build up a robot’s capacity to scan a cluttered home and tell the difference between cups, dishes, and that cherished souvenir tiki mug you brought back from the Fiji islands, says Melonee Wise, CEO of San Jose, CA-based Fetch Robotics. In addition to creating those complex capabilities in vision, object recognition, dexterity, and the understanding of spoken commands, engineers will have to teach robots to grasp cultural differences, she says. Different robot masters will mean different things when they tell the robot to greet them as they open the door.

“I want the robot to say, ‘Hello! You’re home!’ ” Wise says, mimicking a puppyish delight. “You may want, ‘Hello, sir. Would you like a cocktail?’ ” she murmurs in a convincingly Jeeves-like tone.

While engineers fascinated with such thorny technical challenges may win Nobel Prizes or design the next advanced robot weapons systems, entrepreneurs these days don’t need to invent a human-like robot that can execute every task the way a human being does, Lux Capital partner Bilal Zuberi says. Rather than producing a robot that can flip burgers with a spatula, you can create an automated cooker with heaters on both top and bottom, for example.

Investors like Lux Capital are looking for entrepreneurs who are designing robots for limited tasks that humans can’t perform, such as lifting heavy weights, working 24 hours a day, or microscopically scanning hundreds of hair follicles and identifying the best ones to transplant to a balding pate, Zuberi says.

“Do a few things, but do them very well,” Zuberi says.

Opportunities are opening up to bake robotics into products for many new industries, because of trends such as the dropping costs of computing elements, according to speakers at Robo Madness. Ordinary consumer electronics stores sell parts to make drones and other devices that can move. Robotic devices can be designed to connect to the Web, to interact with smartphone applications, and make use of cloud computing services rather than rely fully on on-board computers.

A processor that would have cost $32 about five years ago now costs 22 cents, says Rob Daley, CEO of the Pittsburgh, PA-based company 4moms. At the old price, a consumer item containing that processor would have cost about $120, while it could now sell at a fraction of that amount, he says.

“Low-cost electrical components will be used in industries that have never before been part of the electronic consumer landscape,” Daley says.

Among the examples is the mamaRoo made by 4moms, which bounces and rocks a baby with the same complex combination of motions a parent would actually use, rather than the simple back and forth of a baby’s chair swing. Daley says 380,000 mamaRoo’s will be shipped this year. When 4moms designs a new product, it starts out by looking at a common problem that needs a solution, rather than developing a technology and then looking for its commercial application.

“From the very beginning, we didn’t think of ourselves as a tech company,” Daley says. “We thought of ourselves as a consumer company.”

Meanwhile, investor interest in robotics has been perking up in recent years among venture capital firms, banks, private equity investors, international funds, and big companies with billions of dollars in liquid assets, says Rich Mahoney, director of the Robotics Program at SRI International in Menlo Park.

Companies are hiring graduates versed in the field and searching for opportunities, Mahoney says.

“I definitely feel that there’s this enormous backlog of resources ready to go into robotics.”

Photo credit: Scott Bramwell

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