Xconomy’s fourth annual Robo Madness conference in Menlo Park this week drew the best of robotics audiences and speakers, carrying on a strong tradition. This original Robo Madness event is now called Robo Madness West, because its successes in the Bay Area spurred Xconomy to export the idea to Boston this year.
For the lively discussions, cool demos, and dense networking sessions, participants can thank our host and sponsor SRI International, fellow sponsors iRobot and the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, plus other partners and underwriters: Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, ARCH Venture Partners, Avalon Ventures, Polaris Partners, and Founders Space.
A big round of applause to our expert speakers and panelists as well as our audience members—you may spot yourself in the pictures captured by photographer Scott Bramwell, who has a great eye for robot technology as well as the human moments that make these gatherings so much fun.
Here are the big themes that ran through all the conference conversations:
1. Robots have a wow factor that instantly attracts people, but the public is also wary of real or imagined dangers from products such as drones flying in the nation’s air space. Rich Mahoney, director of the Robotics Program at SRI International, says industry players need to dispel images of sci-fi robots like the Terminator. “We need to change the story people tell themselves about the future they will live in.”
2. The dropping cost of many components is spreading the use of intelligent automation to new industries such as agriculture, food preparation, healthcare, rehabilitation, and ordinary household equipment.
3. What is the definition of a robot? That question is fresher than ever. New product classes for wired homes and connected cars are blurring the lines between categories.
4. Robotics can “democratize quality” in complex procedures such as surgery, by capturing the precise movements and protocols of the best practitioners in the world.
5. The debate continues on whether robots will deplete the job market for human beings, or foster job creation by increasing productivity, wealth, and reinvestment in the economy.
6. Entrepreneurs must guard against the urge to tackle tough technical obstacles for the pure joy of it, and instead seize on commercial opportunities using discoveries already at hand.
7. Even so, it pays to keep your eye on the far horizon, where DARPA is funding research toward human-like limbs capable of feats like high-rate micromanipulation. “If you want to know robotics, pay attention to what DARPA is investing in,” Mahoney says.
8. Robot makers will face surprising (and funny) cultural challenges as robots circulate among humans. Hotel guests have tried to tip Savioke’s Relay robot when it delivers items to their rooms. They’ll also open their room doors to a robot without getting dressed, Savioke learned. (The company now blurs out Relay’s video vision when the door opens.)