How will robots & AI change our way of life in 2030?

Sydney Padua’s Ada Lovelace is a continual inspiration.
Sydney Padua’s Ada Lovelace is a continual inspiration.

At #WebSummit 2017, I was part of a panel on what the future will bring in 2030 with John Vickers from Blue Abyss, Jacques Van den Broek from Randstad and Stewart Rogers from Venture Beat. John talked about how technology will allow humans to explore amazing new places. Jacques demonstrated how humans were more complex than our most sophisticated AI and thus would be an integral part of any advances. And I focused on how the current technological changes would look amplified over a 10–12 year period.

After all, 2030 isn’t that far off, so we have already invented all the tech, but it isn’t widespread yet and we’re only guessing what changes will come about with the network effects. As William Gibson said, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

Factory robots.
Factory robots.

What worries me is that right now we’re worried about robots taking jobs. And yet the jobs at most risk are the ones in which humans are treated most like machines. So I say, bring on the robots! But what worries me is that the current trend towards a gig economy and micro transactions powered by AI, ubiquitous connectivity and soon blockchain, will mean that we turn individuals back into machines. Just part of a giant economic network, working in fragments of gigs not on projects or jobs. I think that this inherent ‘replaceability’ is ultimately inhumane.

Gig economy.
Gig economy.

When people say they want jobs, they really mean they want a living wage and a rewarding occupation. So let’s give the robots the gigs.
Here’s the talk: “Life in 2030”
It’s morning, the house gently blends real light tones and a selection of bird song to wake me up. Then my retro ’Teasmade’ serves tea and the wall changes from sunrise to news channels and my calendar for today. I ask the house to see if my daughter’s awake and moving. And to remind her that the clothes only clean themselves if they’re in the cupboard, not on the floor.

Affordable ‘Pick up’ bots are still no good at picking up clothing although they’re good at toys. In the kitchen I spend a while recalibrating the house farm. I’m enough of a geek to put the time into growing legumes and broccoli. It’s pretty automatic to grow leafy greens and berries, but larger fruits and veg are tricky. And only total hippies spend the time on home grown vat meat or meat substitutes.

I’m proud of how energy neutral our lifestyle is, although humans always seem to need more electricity than we can produce. We still have our own car, which shuttles my daughter to school in remote operated semi autonomous mode where control is distributed between the car, the road network and a dedicated 5 star operator. Statistically it’s the safest form of transport, and she has the comfort of traveling in her own family vehicle.

Whereas I travel in efficiency mode — getting whatever vehicle is nearby heading to my destination. I usually pick the quiet setting. I don’t mind sharing my ride with other people or drivers but I like to work or think as I travel.

I work in a creative collective — we provide services and we built the collective around shared interests like historical punk rock and farming. Branding our business or building our network isn’t as important as it used to be because our business algorithms adjust our marketing strategies and bid on potential jobs faster than we could.

The collective allows us to have better health and social plans than the usual gig economy. Some services, like healthcare or manufacturing still have to have a lot of infrastructure, but most information services can cowork or remote work and our biggest business expense is data subscriptions.

This is the utopic future. For the poor, it doesn’t look as good. Rewind..
It’s morning. I’m on Basic Income, so to get my morning data & calendar I have to listen to 5 ads and submit 5 feedbacks. Everyone in our family has to some, but I do extra so that I get parental supervision privileges and can veto some of the kid’s surveys.

We can’t afford to modify the house to generate electricity, so we can’t afford decent house farms. I try to grow things the old way, in dirt, but we don’t have automation and if I’m busy we lose produce through lack of water or bugs or something. Everyone can afford Soylent though. And if I’ve got some cash we can splurge on junk food, like burgers or pizza.

My youngest still goes to a community school meetup but the older kids homeschool themselves on the public school system. It’s supposed to be a personalized AI for them but we still have to select which traditional value package we subscribed to.

I’m already running late for work. I see that I have a real assortment of jobs in my queue. At least I’ll be getting out of the house driving people around for a while, but I’ve got to finish more product feedbacks while I drive and be on call for remote customer support. Plus I need to do all the paperwork for my DNA to be used on another trial or maybe a commercial product. Still, that’s how you get health care — you contribute your cells to the health system.

We also go bug catching, where you scrape little pieces of lichen, or dog poo, or insects into the samplers, anything that you think might be new to the databases. One of my friends hit jackpot last year when their sample was licensed as a super new psychoactive and she got residuals.

I can’t afford to go online shopping so I’ll have to go to a mall this weekend. Physical shopping is so exhausting. There are holo ads and robots everywhere spamming you for feedback and getting in your face. You might have some privacy at home but in public, everyone can eye track you, emote you and push ads. It’s on every screen and following you with friendly robots.

It’s tiring having to participate all the time. Plus you have to take selfies and foodies and feedback and survey and share and emote. It used to be ok doing it with a group of friends but now that I have kids ….
Robots and AI make many things better although we don’t always notice it much. But they also make it easier to optimize us and turn us into data, not people.

When being a woman in robotics gives you the edge

WestworldRobotics isn’t gender neutral, it’s gender blind. And that means that there are a lot of hidden opportunities for savvy investors and entrepreneurs. One of the first robotics companies I followed was Restoration Robotics, a Silicon Valley based company that’s raised more than $111 M USD in 6 rounds. Restoration Robotics saw a niche for robotics in treating male baldness.

Pree Walia, CEO and founder of Preemadonna has her eyes set on a robotics/computer vision nail art solution. Preemadonna’s Nailbot was runner up in 2015 Robot Launch startup competition and went on to become a finalist on TechCrunch Disrupt. Her startup was the only one targeting female consumers. Not only does less than 7% of venture funding go to female founders [Bloomberg], but female focused products are also much less likely to get funded, even though they may be addressing a huge market.

Let’s face it – the nail salon industry in the US alone has an annual turnover in excess of $8B according to Statista and that’s before including nail products and home treatments, estimated at another $8-9B, for a total market size of approx $16B.

To put that in context, the entire US apple industry has an annual revenue of half that at around $4 B, with an overall downstream economic impact of $16B, according to the US Apple Association. And the US is the second largest apple producer in the world.

We’ve all heard about the Maker Community and how 3D printers and digital tools can reshape the economy and why 21st century STEM education needs access to fab labs. But meanwhile, there’s been a quiet crafting revolution, which is sending ripples into many adjacent areas. Women have traded their sewing machines in for digital machines, stitchers, knitters, cutters, etchers, embroiderers, etc.  Many industries, from the sign industry to textile companies are moving from professional to prosumer, even consumer and DIY. The beauty industry is following.

The co-founder of Preemadonna, maker of the Nailbot, hopes the nail-art printing device will help attract girls to tech
The co-founder of Preemadonna, maker of the Nailbot, hopes the nail-art printing device will help attract girls to tech

Preemadonna was just accepted into L’Oréal and Founders Factory’s accelerator programCEO, Pree, presented to senior executives (including L’Oréal’s CEO) at L’Oréal’s Headquarters in France late last year and became one of only five startups to win a spot in the elite program.

Seems like a few robotics startups are now realizing that there are untapped markets in female facing products. The only downside is that robot solutions may start to displace women’s jobs. For example, being a nail artist is a lucrative yet low skilled job. However, there are opportunities both for female entrepreneurs ie for opening up beauty robot service salons, and for female founders and inventors, who may be first to market with new robot products and services.

Looking towards service robots in 2017

Sophisticated household robots are only just starting to show up in our lives, but all the building blocks for a veritable “Cambrian explosion” of robotics are there, as Gill Pratt described it when he was running the recent DARPA Robotics Challenge. The service robotics industry IS emerging, and we will soon be seeing robots of all shapes and sizes making their first forays into our everyday lives.

This is borne out by the recent explosion in robotics and AI funding, which saw robotics investments increase  exponentially over the last five years. While approximately $1 billion was invested in robotics between 2009 and 2014, roughly the same amount was invested in 2015 alone and 2016 is on track to double the total investment again.

According to the CBInsights October 2016 report into “The State of Enterprise: Robotics”, these new investments are largely clustered in autonomous vehicles and the service robotics industry, with strong growth noted in enterprise focused robotics companies.

“Over 50 enterprise-focused robotics companies have raised $259M across 63 deals this year (as of 10/5/2016). These companies are building robots for industrial automation, manufacturing, warehouse automation, and restaurant services, among other tasks.

At the current run-rate, deals to enterprise robotics startups are projected to cross 80 this year, beating last year’s record of 73.”

Figure from CB Insights blog “Robotics Startups Funding”

enterprise_robots_map_q3-16_1As few as five years ago, the robotics landscape looked simple. While drone and autonomous vehicle technologies were beginning to emerge and cause some excitement, most of the robotics industry was industrial, and the remainder of the landscape was comparatively arid and boring: a few hospital robots, some robot vacuum cleaners, and a few toys and educational robots.

The emergence of the service robotics industry as a serious economic force has taken many people by surprise. It has also made it more difficult to make sense of the robotics landscape, particularly because the new service robotics businesses impact so many markets and applications, making categorization and statistics difficult to obtain, and trends hard to analyze.

Figure from CB Insights blog (retrieved December 2016)

The impact of the internet on the retail sector is a marked example. The demise of physical retail has been hyped since the first dot com bubble, and perhaps this hype has lulled us into a false sense of security. But the huge decline in value of most major US retailers over the past decade is simply shocking. At the same time, robotics offers a potential solution to the pending economic disaster that is threatening the bricks and mortar retail industry. Early signs indicate that robotics is bringing manufacturing back to the US, enabling small batch, just-in-time production in a range of areas from automotive to electronics to biomedical.

Now it seems service robotics solutions in the retail and consumer spaces are offering new ways for brick and mortar companies to likewise maintain their competitive edge. And helping to shape these solutions are a number of Silicon Valley startups featured in this report: Catalia Health, Cleverpet, Bossa Nova, Fetch Robotics, Savioke, Marble, Dispatch, Dishcraft, Momentum Machines, Eatsa, Fellow Robots and Simbe. Indeed, Silicon Valley is at the epicenter of emerging service robotics industry.

Since 2010 Silicon Valley Robotics has been tracking early stage robotics startups and supporting them as they grow. Many of these companies are creating fundamentally new interactions and products, and as they do so, are leveraging the latest business model concepts, including various twists on “Robots as a Service” and “cloud robotics”. With so much new ground being broken, we saw a need to share their stories so that the industry as a whole can learn and grow, too.  

Our first report on “Service Robotics Case Studies in Silicon Valley 2015” looked at enterprise robotics companies like Fetch Robotics, Adept, Fellow Robots, and Savioke, who occupied the space between backroom logistics and front-of-house customer service.

The new “Service Robotics Case Studies in Silicon Valley 2016” takes a deeper dive to explore how robotics companies are driving changes in how we interact — not just with technology — but with our pets, our health care providers, and our retail experience.

  1. CleverPet (B2C) >> changing how people interact with their pets and delivering data-driven interactions at the far end of the spectrum of the new behavioral robotics
  2. Catalia Health (B2B2C) >> changing how people interact with their medication and life choices, but also how healthcare providers interact with patients >> intelligence built in by experts; allowing for smarter, data-driven interactions
  3. Simbe (B2B) >> allowing retail managers to interact more efficiently with their stock

A clear theme is that each of these robotics startups can unlock data-driven insights with potentially enormous additional business upside by leveraging the ubiquitous connectivity that is being made possible by cloud computing, and more specifically, cloud robotics. Emerging cloud robotics technology enables far more than the simple ability to continuously update and upgrade a physical product, or even to augment the intelligence of that product; it allows robots to become active mobile big data collectors.

Another important theme is how the RaaS or “Robots as a Service” model is maturing, with a range of transactions and applications (e.g. commission-based vs rental-based etc.) to complement the roll out of cloud robotics. Robots are no longer being marketed as simple products for sale, but as sophisticated tools for gaining insights and creating value and driving customer change.

Our second set of case studies and commentaries looks at how accelerators and investors are supporting the drive towards RaaS and finding business models that map robotics technologies into existing business structures, in areas ranging from health to consumer, hospitality to retail.

  1. HAX >> helping startups focus on business models via programs like HAX Boost
  2. Lemnos Labs >> seeing opportunities for RaaS, working with startups on developing their business plan
  3. Comet Labs >> analyzing how intelligent machines can reimagine retail from logistics to customer experience

Every case study and commentary in this report underscores the fundamental importance (and reliance) of human-robot interaction to the service robotics business model — a trend that is sure define the industry well into the future. With so many ‘humans in the loop’ it will become critical that we design robots and businesses that set a high bar for safety, privacy, and ethics. For this reason, we are pleased to announce that Silicon Valley Robotics has just launched a “Good Robot Design Council” with industry expert advisors in an effort to develop design guidelines for the robotics industry that can help fill the ethical gap between standards and laws.

To that same end, our next service robotics reports will focus on self-driving vehicles, agriculture, and other ‘niche’ verticals, with an emphasis on the increasing importance of human-robot interaction, and a look at which aspects of design make good robots and successful businesses.  

Consumer robotics hots up with Bosch funding Rotimatic

Rotimatic screenshot

First it was robot vacuum cleaners, now it seems to be robot kitchen appliances, proving that robots are back in the popular imagination as household helpers. The Rotimatic is a ‘robotic’ flatbread maker from Zimplistic, who have just completed a Series B investment round of $11.5 million from NSI Ventures, based in Singapore, and RBVC, the venture arm of Robert Bosch GmBH. Not surprising, as Bosch have strong interest in consumer robotics and this is a great product for entry into Asian market.

The Rotimatic can produce a freshly cooked flatbread in a minute and has capacity to make 20 at a time. Rotimatic has proven to be a very popular device, doing over $5 million in preorders at launch in 2014 and with $72 million worth of orders on current books and more than 5000 distribution requests. I’m told by people who use the device that it’s ‘almost as good as roti cooked by your mother’.

Zimplistic will use the $11.5 million just raised to accelerate manufacturing rollout, fund working capital and set up operations in international markets to fulfill Rotimatic demand. The company plans to finish ongoing extended beta before scaling production.

“Zimplistic is a rare combination of a project with huge revenue potential and also social impact by increasing the productivity of millions of men and women around the world who still make flatbreads by hand. We are proud to be able to support such an innovative hardware company and look forward to helping make Rotimatic a global bestseller” said Hian Goh, NSI Ventures and also founder of Asian Food Channel.

“Rotimatic’s cutting edge robotic technology takes user convenience in the kitchen around a conscious, healthy nutrition to new levels. We are very impressed by the Zimplistic team and happy to support the company on its way to scale up production and enter global distribution “ added Jan Westerhues, of RBVC.

Rotimatic is far from the first robotics kitchen appliance though. According to their website, SF based Momentum Machines aims to revolutionize gourmet food making from hamburgers to salads and sandwiches. Sereneti is a recent Highway 1 startup, that is taking the new breed of bowl mix/breadmakers to another level. And there’s FlatEv ‘the Keurig for tortillas’. Then there’s BrewBot for beer, and also robot baristas, coffee makers, tea makers, even a robot chai maker.

The prototypes for automating food processing dates back to the 40s, if not earlier, but electric motors were expensive and large. In 1960, French company Robot-Coupe pioneered the food processor. In the 70s, the Magimix was commercialized in the USA under the brand Cuisinart. Their Robot Cook® is now on the market as ‘the first professional heating food processor’.

“You can emulsify, grind, blend, chop, mix and knead to perfection with the new Robot Cook®, the only professional cooking cutter blender on the market.”

Although many of these devices are on the very simple end of the arc of robotics and automation technologies, the fact that marketing a consumer device as a robot is proving to be a viable strategy is good indication of a bullish period for robotics. And it is essential to simplify robotics for the consumer market to achieve an affordable price point.

There are three paradigms at play in the robot kitchen; the appliance improved; the completely new device; and the robot using existing appliances. The first is about building the better mousetrap and there is low hanging fruit here as component technologies improve and become more affordable. The second paradigm requires more of a paradigm shift, like breeding mice that are allergic to humans instead of trapping them when they enter our houses. The third paradigm would augment or replace humans, by building the equivalent of a robot cat.

I’m excited about automation in the kitchen reducing the work load and making it easier to provide fresh, healthy and nutritious meals for time poor families. But at the same time, we are running out of counter space, and under counter space too.

At some point, we don’t need more gadgets, we need a new process. The replacement for a whole range of robot kitchen appliances might be a stove/refrigerator unit which auto orders food, autoloads it, autoprepares it and autocleans itself. Or we could turn the table into a unit that doubles as cupboard and dishwasher.

So while we could replace the machines in the kitchen to save space, however the final paradigm is to add a machine that replaces a person in the kitchen. Moley Robotics wowed crowds at Hannover Messe industrial trade fair in April with their robot chef. Capturing the exact movements of British 2011 MasterChef champion, Tim Anderson, the robot chef prepared a crab bisque for the trade fair visitors.


Moley Robotics was founded by computer scientist Mark Oleynik, working with hands from Shadow Robot Company. Crab bisque is only the first recipe of a thousands planned. Moley Robotics intends to launch a consumer kitchen robot system in 2017, consisting of hands, hob, stove and touchscreen.

And robot chefs are useful in ways that extend beyond replacing humans in the kitchen. The kitchen is a great learning environment for robots. WAs a learning tool DARPA AND thisAt the other end of the spectrum is the RoDyMan project lead by Bruno Siciliano, which is using pizza making to demonstrate robotics skill acquisition in the area of robot gripping, ie. localisation of the object while it is moving, motion and manipulation of the object, and control of the overall robotic system.

Even DARPA is funding research, at the University of Maryland, where robots learn to cook from you tube videos. The rationale being that skills acquired are relevant to a whole range of other activities. Perhaps not what you want in your kitchen yet, but who knew we might be watching the research labs for our next recipes?

Forget Google and unicorns, Asian dragons are going to dominate robotics

SoftBank, FoxConn and Alibaba have today cemented a strong robotics initiative. Having acquired a majority stake in Aldebaran in 2012, just after the Amazon acquisition of Kiva, SoftBank’s interest in robots has been cause for confusion. Do they want an ‘emotional’ humanoid robot or is their interest in Aldebaran a pathway towards a more practical robot?
Well, it looks like SoftBank is interested in everything robotic, as they lead the $20 million A round in logistics company Fetch Robotics and announce a joint robotics production partnership with Alibaba and FoxConn. The new SoftBank Robotics Holdings Corp. (SBRH) is valued at $590 million, with Alibaba and FoxConn paying $118 million each for 20% stakes in SBRH.
SoftBank, Alibaba and Foxconn will “build a structure to bring Pepper and other robotics businesses to global markets, and cooperate with the aim of spreading and developing the robotics industry on a worldwide scale.” said the SoftBank release. And Pepper, will finally go on sale to customers on June 20 after delays from projected availability in early 2015. Pepper will cost 198,000 yen (approx $1610) plus a monthly service fee.
Pepper has already appeared in SoftBank and Nestle stores in Japan. This next step could see Pepper in your home, although SoftBank believes that the primary initial customers will be institutional. With Japan’s aging population serving as an inspiration point, SoftBank have been exploring applications for Pepper in nursing homes, for example, conversing with patients with dementia.
Masayoshi Son, Chairman & CEO of SoftBank, said, “Since foundation, we have followed our corporate philosophy of ‘Information Revolution – Happiness for everyone.’ I am very excited that we will partner with Alibaba and Foxconn, and challenge to go global with our robotics business, including Pepper, as a first step to realize our vision. To bring more smiles to people around the world, we will aim to be the No.1 robotics company.”
Pepper is just the first step. Remember Terry Gou’s famous “1 million robots in FoxConn factories by 2014” statement? When Gou made the plan in 2011, finding 1 million factory robots would have meant doubling the number of industrial robots in the world. With the world coming out of an economic slump, Gou’s plan was too ambitious at the time. However, industrial robotics has been growing rapidly ever since, and nowhere faster than in China. At the same time, the cost of robotics systems is lowering and the range of applications for industrial and now service and logistics robots is increasing.
Terry Gou, Founder and CEO of Foxconn Technology Group, said, “Foxconn is pleased to be partnering with SoftBank and Alibaba as part of our effort to drive the advancement of robotics engineering. This is a strategic area of focus for our company as we continue to advance our capabilities in intelligent manufacturing and realize our Industry 4.0 vision.” He added, “As a leading global technology company, Foxconn is committed to investing in innovation that enables us to deliver cutting-edge solutions to our customers and that supports our goal of leveraging technology to bring greater convenience to the lives of consumers around the world.”
It’s clear that Gou realized that the world couldn’t build robots fast enough to meet his demand in 2011 and that the demand was only going to increase. FoxConn, Alibaba and SoftBank are the emerging dragons of robotics. Unicorns swept the tech world by storm last year after Aileen Lee, Cowboy Ventures, wrote a data-rich analysis of fast growth startups with mega valuations. Since then, some have looked a little further and found ‘dragons’ to be more rewarding. By some accounts a dragon company is one that returns 100% of fund value to a fund – or by some other accounts – a company with a real $1B not just a $1B valuation.
Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva Systems for $775m in 2012 was the first shot in a campaign that is just ramping up. Google’s purchase of 8 robotics and !I companies in 2013 left many people excited, but it was the forays into robotics by Facebook, Uber and other more stealthy companies that got me excited. Unicorn or Dragon – there are a lot of young companies with bucket loads of cash and a very loose understanding of what their grown up status is. If they stay true to their startup selves, their sole mission is to grow like crazy – see Paul Graham’s seminal 2012 piece “Startup = Growth” . Investing in robotics may not be a strategy so much as a byproduct.
Sadly, cementing this initiative may be the final sinking of Aldebaran, the visionary robotics company we used to know. All the other robots, including NAO, have been shelved in favor of Pepper and SoftBank has taken over all the software development, leading to big staff cuts at Aldebaran. Rude Baguette quoted an anonymous Aldebaran executive as saying; “If we were paranoid, we’d say that FoxConn stole the hardware, SoftBank stole the software, and Aldebaran was sucked dry.”
While the globalization of robotics is good in the short term, I hope that SoftBank’s initiatives lead to more innovation in robotics and robotics businesses. Globalization will drive growth, but only up to a point. It’s what Peter Thiel describes as “1 to n”, where “n” is always finite. In his book, “Zero to One” Thiel describes the importance of the new opportunity.

Fetch and SRI show that useful humanoids are on the horizon

*updated* SoftBank today announced a $236 million investment into their robotics division by Alibaba and FoxConn for marketing and distribution, including Pepper and Fetch robots.  Fetch Robotics has just announced a $20 million Series A round lead by SoftBank, on top of the earlier seed investments of $3 million from Shasta Ventures and O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures. Fetch is a mobile manipulator aimed at the logistics and warehouse industry. At the same time, SRI International and Sandia National Laboratory have been showing off their new humanoid robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Expo. While DURUS is still a research robot, we can now see that useful humanoids have a pathway to commercialization.
Fetch Robotics is the first of a group of companies commercializing mobile manipulators. So far all are on wheeled bases (because post DRC we’ve all seen how difficult it is to build successfully bipedal robots). The recent Amazon Picking Challenge showed us that there are a lot of commercial players interested in the logistics space. There were more companies in the audience, both large robotics companies, strategics and stealth startups, than there were teams competing in the challenge.
After Kiva Systems, Fetch Robotics is one of the first to market, with their two robots; Fetch, a mobile manipulator, and Freight, a mobile delivery platform. Fetch’s strong Series A is a typical Silicon Valley play – go big fast. Robotics investment is following the global tech investment trends. Silicon Valley is investing more money than the rest of the world combined. Investing more money doesn’t mean that SV is investing in a greater number of deals than anywhere else though. Early investment is strong around the world, but the size of investments at every stage are bigger in Silicon Valley.
It’s a bit of a unicorn hunt but the hunt is leading into new market sectors, including hardware and robotics. An average series A round is $3 to $8 million. A $23 million seed/Series A isn’t just about producing expensive hardware, it’s about building a sales and marketing division to get robots into as many warehouses as possible.

“As businesses look for solutions to streamline operations and meet the needs of an on-demand economy, we see a tremendous opportunity for robotics to solve that problem,” says Kabir Misra, Managing Director at SB Group US, Inc. “The team, the robots, and the timing all lead us to Fetch Robotics and we are happy to join them in bringing Fetch and Freight to market.”

“I’m delighted to have SoftBank join the team and help us change the world of logistics and material handling,” said Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics. “SoftBank’s expertise and worldwide resources with respect to technology, production, distribution and more will be a big help to our growing organization.”

This isn’t SoftBank’s first robot company either, but Aldebaran’s humanoid robots are entertainingly social rather than functional, and are being rolled out only in a marketing role. The SoftBank/Fetch partnership seems to be far more pragmatic. Teradyne’s recent acquisition of Universal Robotics shows us that any company can become a robotics company, both as a good investment and as part of internal growth strategies.
We will be seeing more investment in mobile manipulating robots, not just arms or telepresence platforms or camera drones, but drones and robots able to deliver or do something. The general purpose humanoid is on the horizon!
The DRC showed us that real robots were finally leaving the lab and doing useful things in the real world in real time. 1 hour to complete 8 tasks was a high bar, and 3 teams beat the clock. But the blooper reel of robots falling over while doing the challenge demonstrate how far robots still have to go.
Outside the DRC challenge at the EXPO, SRI International unveiled DURUS, a humanoid robot designed to walk more efficiently than the Atlas used in the DRC. We thought that robots running for 1 hour off batteries was a big deal, but DURUS can run for 10 x longer. DURUS is just the legs and torso though. When combined with SRI’s work on arms and manipulators, you have a whole humanoid, PROXI.

Rich Mahoney, the director of SRI’s robotics program, explained to IEEE Spectrum what is coming over the horizon:

“We don’t believe that there’s a platform [that exists right now] that has the kind of components, performance, and dynamic response that PROXI will have. Hopefully we’ll see a path where initially some research groups will start with them, and then in 3-5 years, if we get the volume, this is a robot that could be on sale for under $100,000. And even potentially in the $50,000 range, with any kind of reasonable volume. We have something that can open up a market: the platforms are getting ready to emerge that will enable the next generation of robot applications, and I think this platform will be one of those.”

Fetch Robotics showed us that the world’s most sophisticated research robot could reach commercialization in less than 10 years. The PR2 was a large humanoid manipulator on wheels developed at Willow Garage from 2006 onwards. A PR2 costs about $400,000. A Fetch is more like $40,000 and has clear commercial applications.  It’s an exciting time when the biggest problems for robotics will be building the business model!

DARPA live action via @svrobo

I’ve been live tweeting all the action from the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals 2015. It’s been exciting and definitely not like watching paint dry this time. It’s amazing how far and how fast the Grand Challenge has pushed teams to perform. Just like with the DARPA driving Grand Challenge, there is now a pathway from impossible to reality.


Women in Robotics

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, I started publishing a list of 25 amazing women in robotics, covering a whole range of areas from research to business. The first list came out last year (2013) and now here is the 2014 list. Great news is that we already have a backlog of great contenders for the 2015 list. See the full posts over at



A call for debate on robot policy


The 1953 New Yorker cartoon that started the “Take me to your leader” meme showed two aliens newly arrived on earth asking a donkey to, effectively, give them policy guidance. This is exactly what our ‘brave new’ human-robot world looks like. Complex technologies can have profound and subtle impacts on the world and robotics is not only a multidisciplinary field, but one which will have impact on every area of life. Where do we go for policy?

Ryan Calo’s recent report for the Brookings Institute, “The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission”, calls for a central body to address the issue of lack of competent and timely policy guidance in robotics. For example, the US risks falling far behind other countries in the commercial UAV field due to the failure of the FAA to produce regulations governing drones. Calo points out the big gap between policy set at the research level ie. OSTP and at the commercial application end of the scale ie. FAA.

However, with robotics being a technology applicable in almost every domain, there will always need to be multiple governing bodies. One central agency is insufficient. Perhaps the answer lies in central information points, like the Brookings Institute, or Robohub, which provides a bridge between robotics researchers and the ‘rest of the world’. Informed discussion is at the heart of democracy and in a complex technical world, scientists, social scientists and science communicators must lead the debate.

I suggest that our current robotics policy agenda needs to be reformed and better informed. This article provides a review of some recent policy reports and considers the changing shape of 21st century scientific debate. In conclusion, I make several recommendations for change:

  1. The creation of a global robotics policy think tank.
  2. That the CTO of USA and the global equivalents make robotics a key strategy discussion.
  3. That a US Robotics Commission is created – while robotics is an emerging field – to implement a cross disciplinary understanding of this technological innovation and its impacts at all levels of society.
  4. That funding bodies make grants available for cross disciplinary organizations engaged in creating a platform for informed debate on emerging technologies.

The Pew Report and the problem with popular opinion

Much of today’s information comes via the media and popular opinion, from policy, analysis or government groups that are just plain out of touch, or unable to absorb or use information across disciplines. In the worst cases a feedback loop is created, of bad opinions being repeated until they are accepted as truth. Recent reports from the Brookings Institute and the Pew Research Center demonstrate both the good and the bad of current policy debates.

The recent widely reported Pew Research Center Report on “AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs” highlights the ridiculousness of the situation. The report canvassed more than 12,000 experts sourced from previous reports, targeted list serves and subscribers to Pew’s research, who are largely professional technology strategists. 8 broad questions were presented, covering various technology trends. 1,896 experts and members of the interested public responded to the question on AI and robotics.

The problem is that very few of the respondents have more than a glancing knowledge of robotics. To anyone in robotics, the absence of people with expertise in robotics and AI is glaringly obvious. While there are certainly insightful people and opinions in the report, the net weight of this report is questionable, particularly as findings are reduced to executive summary level comments such as;

“Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers – with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”

These findings are simply popular opinion without basis in fact. However, the Pew Research Center is well respected and considered relevant. The center is a non-partisan organization which provides all findings freely “to inform the public, the press and policy makers”, not just on the internet and future of technology, but on religion, science, health, even the impact of the World Cup.

How do you find the right sort of information to inform policy and public opinion about robotics? How do you strike a balance between understanding technology and understanding the social implications of technology developments?

Improving the quality of public policy through good design

Papers like Heather Knight’s “How Humans Respond to Robots” or Ryan Calo’s “The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission” for the Brookings Institute series on “The Future of Civilian Robotics”, and organizations like Robohub and the Robots Association, are good examples of initiatives that improve public policy debate. At one end of the spectrum, an established policy organization is sourcing from established robotics experts. At the other end, a peer group of robotics experts is providing open access to the latest research and opinions within robotics and AI, including exploring ethical and economic issues.

Heather Knight’s report “How Humans Respond to Robots: Building Public Policy through Good Design” for the Brookings Institute is a good example of getting it right. The Brookings Institute is one of the oldest and most influential think tanks in the world, founded in Washington D.C. in 1916. The Brookings Institute is non-partisan and generally regarded as centrist in agenda. Although based in the US, the institute has global coverage and attracts funding from both philanthropic and government sources including, the govts of the US, UK, Japan, and China. It is the most frequently cited think tank in the world.

Heather Knight is conducting doctoral research at CMU’s Robotics Institute in human-robot interaction. She has worked at NASA JPL and Aldebaran Robotics, she cofounded the Robot Film Festival and she is an alumnus of the Personal Robots Group at MIT. She has degrees in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering. Here you have a person well anchored in robotics with a broad grasp of the issues, who has prepared an overview on social robotics and robot/society interaction. This report is a great example of public policy through good design, if it does indeed makes its way into the hands of people who could use it.

As Knight explains, “Human cultural response to robots has policy implications. Policy affects what we will and will not let robots do. It affects where we insist on human primacy and what sort of decisions we will delegate to machines.”  Automation, AI and robotics is entering the world of human-robot collaboration and we need to support and complement the full spectrum of human objectives.

Knight’s goal was not to be specific about policy but rather to sketch out the range of choices we currently face in robotics design and how they will affect future policy questions, and she provides many anecdotes and examples, where thinking about “smart social design now, may help us navigate public policy considerations in the future.”

Summary: “How Humans Respond to Robots”


Firstly, people require very little prompting to treat machines or personas as having agency. Film animators have long understood just how simple it is to turn squiggles on the screen into expressive characters in our minds and eyes. We are neurologically coded to follow motion and to interpret even objects as having social or intentional actions. This has implications for future human relationships as our world becomes populated with smart moving objects, many studies show that we can bond with devices and even enjoy taking orders from them.

There is also the impact of the “uncanny valley” – a term that describes the cognitive dissonance created when something is almost, but not quite, human. This is still a fluid and far from well-understood effect, but it foreshadows our need for familiarity, codes and conventions around human-robot interactions. Film animators have created a vocabulary of tricks that create the illusion of emotion. So, too, have robot designers, who are developing tropes of sounds, colors, and prompts (that may borrow from other devices like traffic lights or popular culture) to help robots convey their intentions to people.

With regard to our response to robots, Knight draws attention to the fallacy of generalization across cultures. Most HRI or Human-Robot Interaction studies show that we also have very different responses along other axes, such as gender, age, experience, engagement etc. regardless of culture.

Similarly, our general responses have undergone significant change as we’ve adapted to precursor technologies such as computers, the internet and mobile phones. Our willingness to involve computers and machines in our personal lives seems immense, but raises the issues of privacy and also social isolation as well as the more benign prospects of utility, therapy and companionship.

As well as perhaps regulating or monitoring the uses of AI, automation and robots, Knight asks: do we need to be proactive in considering the rights of machines? Or at least in considering conventions for their treatment? Ethicists are doing the important job of raising these issues, ranging from what choices an autonomous vehicle should make in a scenario where all possible outcomes involove human injury, or if we should ‘protect’ machines in order to protect our social covenants with real beings. As Kant said in his treatise on ethics, we have no moral obligation towards animals, and yet our behavior towards them reflects our humanity.

“If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.” Kant

This suggests that, as a default, we should create more machines that are machine-like, machines that by design and appearance telegraph their constraints and behaviors. We should avoid the urge to anthropomorphize and personalize our devices, unless we can guarantee our humane treatment of them.

Knight outlines a human-robot partnership framework across three categories: Telepresence Robots, Collaborative Robots and Autonomous Vehicles. A telepresence robot is comparatively transparent, acting as a proxy for a person, who provides the high level control. A collaborative robot may be working directly with someone (as in robot surgery) or be working on command but interacting autonomously with other people (ie. delivery robot). An autonomous vehicle extends the previous scenarios and may be able to operate at distance or respond directly to the driver, pilot or passenger.

The ratio of shared autonomy is shifting towards the robot, and the challenge is to create patterns of interaction that minimize friction and maximize transparency, utility and social good. In conclusion, Knight calls for designers to better understand human culture and practices in order to frame issues for policy makers.

Brookings Institute and NY Times: Creating a place for dialogue

The Brookings Institute also released several other reports on robotics policy directions as part of their series on The Future of Civilian Robots, which culminated in a panel discussion. This format is similar to the NY Times Room for Debate, which brings outside experts together to discuss timely issues. However, there is a preponderance of law, governance, education and journalist experts on the panels, perhaps because these disciplines attract multidisciplinary or “meta” thinkers.

Is this the right mix? Are lawyers the right people to be defining the policy scope of robotics? Ryan Calo’s contribution to robotics as a law scholar has been both insightful and pragmatic, and well beyond the scope of any one robotics researcher or robot business. However, Calo has made robotics and autonomous vehicles his specialty area and has spent years engaged in dialogue with many robotics researchers and businesses.

Before moving to the University of Washington as Faculty Director of their new Tech Policy Lab, Calo was the Director of Robotics and Privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society. Calo has an AB in Philosophy from Dartmouth College and a Doctorate in Law, cumme laude, from the University of Michigan. His writings have won best paper at conferences, have been read to the Senate, have provoked research grants, and have been republished in many top newspapers and journals.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? As technologies become more complex, can social issues be considered without a deep understanding of the technology and what it can or can’t enable? Equally, is it the technology that needs to be addressed or regulated, or is it the social practices, which might or might not be changed as we embrace new technologies?

It’s not surprising that lawyers are setting the standard for the policy debate, as writing and enacting policy is their bread and butter. But the underlying conclusion seems to be that we need deep engagement across many disciplines to develop good policy.

Summary: “The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission”


When Toyota customers claimed that their cars were causing accidents, the various government bodies involved called on NASA to investigate the complex technology interactions and separate mechanical issues from software problems. Ryan Calo takes the position that robotics, as a complex emerging technology, needs an organization capable of investigating potential future issues and shaping policy accordingly.

Calo calls on the US to create a Federal Robotics Commission, or risk falling behind the rest of world in innovation. Current bodies are ill-equipped to tackle “robotics in society” issues other than in piecemeal fashion. Understanding robotics requires cross-disciplinary expertise, and the technology itself may make possible new human experiences across a range of fields.

“Specifically, robotics combines, for the first time, the promiscuity of data with physical embodiment – robots are software that can touch you.” says Calo.

Society is still integrating the internet and now “bones are on the line in addition to bits”. There may be more victims, but how do we identify the perpetrators in a future full of robots? Law is, by and large, defined around human intent and foreseeability, so current legal structures may require review.

Calo considers the first robot-specific law passed by Nevada in 2011 for “autonomous vehicles”, which defined autonomous activity in a way that included most modern car behaviors, and thus had to be repealed. Where that error was due to a lack of technical expertise, Calo foresees the problem of a new class of behaviors being introduced.

Human driving error accounts for tens of thousands of fatalities. While autonomous vehicles will almost certainly reduce accidents, they might create some accidents that would not have occurred if humans were driving. Is this acceptable?

Calo also describes the ‘underinclusive’ nature of robotics policy, citing the FAA developing regulations for drones, which often serve as delivery mechanism for small cameras. However, the underlying issue of privacy is raised any time small cameras are badly deployed; in trees, on phones, on poles, or planes, or birds, not just in drones.

Other issues raised by Calo include: the impact of high frequency automated activity with real world repercussions; the potential for adaptive, or ‘cognitive’, use of communications frequencies; and potential problems swapping between automated and human control of systems, if required by either malfunction or law.

Calo then describes his vision for a Federal Robotics Commission modeled on similar previous organizations. This FRC would advise other agencies on policy relating to robots, drones or autonomous vehicles, and also advise federal, state and local lawmakers on robotics law and policy.

The FRC would convene domestic and international stakeholders across industry, government, academia and NGOs to discuss the impact of robotics and AI on society, and could potentially file ‘friend of the court’ briefs in complex technology matters.

Does this justify the call for another agency? Calo admits that there is overlap with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Congressional Research Service. However, he believes that none of these bodies speaks to the whole of the “robotics in society” question.

Calo finishes with an interesting discussion with Cory Doctorow, about whether or not robotics could be considered separate to computers “and the networks that connect them”. Calo posits that the physical harm an embodied system, or robot, could do is very different to the economic or intangible harm done by software alone.

In conclusion, Calo calls for a Federal Robotics Commission to take charge of early legal and policy infrastructure for robotics. It was the decision to apply the First Amendment to the internet, and to immunize platforms for what users do, that allowed internet technology to thrive. And has, in turn, created new 21st century platforms for legal and policy debate. 

Robohub – Using 21st century tools for science communication


In the 21st century, science has access to a whole new toolbox of communications. Where 19th century science was presented as theater, in the form of public lectures and demonstrations, 20th century science grew an entire business of showcases, primarily conferences and journals. New communication mediums are now disrupting established science communication.

There is an increasing expectation that science can be turned into a top 500 Youtube channel, like Minute Physics, or an award winning twitter account, like Neil De Grasse Tyson’s @neiltyson which has 2.34 million followers. We are witnessing the rise of MOOCs (multi person open online courses) like the Khan Academy, and Open Access journals, like PLOS, the Public Library of Science.

Berkeley University has just appointed a ‘wikipedian-in-residence’, Kevin Gorman. The ‘wikiepedian-in-residency’ initiative started with museums, libraries and galleries, making information about artifacts and exhibits available to the broader public. This is a first however for a university and the goal is twofold: to extend public access to research that is usually behind paywalls or simply obscure; and to improve the writing, researching and publishing skills of students. Students are encouraged to find gaps in wikipedia and fill them, with reference to existing research.

In between individual experts and global knowledge banks there is space for curated niche content. Robohub is one of the sites that I think can play an integral role in both shaping the quality of debate in robotics and expanding the science communication toolbox. (Yes, I’m deeply involved in the site, so am certainly biased. But the increasing number of experts who are giving their time voluntarily to our site, and the rising amount of visitors, give weight to my assertions.)

Robohub had its inception in 2008 with the birth of the Robots Podcast, a biweekly feature on a range of robotics topics, now numbering more than 150 episodes. As the number of podcasts and contributors grew, the non-profit Robots Association was formed to provide an umbrella group tasked with spinning off new forms of science communication, sharing robotics research and information across the sector, across the globe and to the public.

Robohub is an online news site with high quality content, more than 140 contributors and 65,000 unique visitors per month. Content ranges from one-off stories about robotics research or business, to ongoing lecture series and micro lectures, to inviting debate about robotics issues, like the ‘Robotics by Invitation’ panels and the Roboethics polls. There are other initiatives in development including report production, research video dissemination and being a hub for robotics jobs, crowdfunding campaigns, research papers and conference information.

In lieu of a global robotics policy think tank, organizations like Robohub can do service by developing a range of broad policy reports, or by providing public access to a curated selection of articles, experts and reports.

In Conclusion

“Take me to your leader?” Even if we can identify our leaders, do they know where we are going? I suggest that our current robotics policy agenda needs to be reformed and better informed. This article provides a review of some recent policy reports and considers the changing shape of 21st century scientific debate. In conclusion, I make several recommendations for change:

  1. The creation of a global robotics policy think tank.

I believe that a global robotics policy think tank will create informed debate across all silos and all verticals, a better solution than regulation or precautionary principle.

  1. That the CTO of USA and the global equivalents make robotics a key strategy discussion.

Robotics has been identified as an important global and national economic driver. The responsibility or impetus to bridge silos, preventing both policy and innovation, must come from the top.

  1. That a US Robotics Commission is created – while robotics is an emerging field – to implement a cross disciplinary understanding of this technological innovation and its impacts at all levels of society.

At a national rather than a global level, NASA is stepping in to bridge the gaps between technology developed under the aegis of bodies, like OSTP, NSF, DARPA etc. and the end effector regulatory bodies, like the DOF, DOA, DOT etc. Perhaps a robotics specific organization or division within NASA is called for.

  1. That funding bodies make grants available for cross disciplinary organizations engaged in creating a platform for informed debate on emerging technologies.

Organizations that are cross disciplinary with a global reach are very hard to get funded, as most funding agencies restrict their contributions, either locally or by discipline. A far reaching technology like robotics needs a far reaching policy debate.