Night at the Museum: A Panel on Mobile Robots

Panelists (courtesy Chris Brady)

On July 26th, the MIT Museum here in Cambridge, Mass was full of some of the best and brightest roboticists in the area. The Boston chapter of TiE partnered with Robotics Trends to bring together experts to talk about the robotics industry and where it was headed.

Neena Buck, an industry analyst at MIT, and Dan Kara, president of Robotics Trends, introduced the robotics industry to the audience of mostly software entrepreneurs. Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairman of iRobot, gave a keynote about her company and the lessons learned over the last fifteen years. Finally, a panel spent some time answering questions from moderator Dan Kara and the audience. The panel was comprised of a Media Lab PhD candidate named Cory Kidd, also the founder of company Intuitive Automata; Joe Jones, CTO and Co-Founder of Q Robotics and also one of the inventors of the Roomba; Rory MacKean, R&D Manager at Mobile Robots (formerly ActivMedia); and Chris Wallsmith, CKO at Bluefin Robotics (he also has the dubious honor of being my boss).

The panel was fascinating, not just in terms of the answers they gave to the questions, but also to see what sorts of questions were asked by the not-necessarily-roboticist audience. A few interesting points and observations:

  • Asia vs the US: there's a well known split in the attitudes toward robots in the US versus in Japan and South Korea. In Asia, it goes, robots are often humanoid (or canine-oid, in the case of Aibo), are meant to interact directly with people, and are thought of --and designed to be -- as pets or companions. In the US, robots are for "dull/dirty/dangerous" tasks like manufacturing or defense and are generally thought of as tools. This may be changing in the US, though. Helen Greiner had stories of Roomba customers asking for *their* Roomba to be repaired, not a replacement unit. Military PackBot operators give awards to the robots as though they are part of the human team and, like the Roomba owners, want their own robot repaired, not to have a new one sent to them. It will be interesting to see how these attitudes drive designs of the next generation of US robots, and whether the US and Asia begin to converge on their designs.

  • The "killer app": there were many questions from the audience about what the panelists thought the "killer app" was for the robotics industry -- not a surprising question from those who work in software. What was surprising was the panel's almost unanimous response: there is none, because robots will literally be everywhere. Chris Wallsmith pointed out that robots are much like computers; that is, computers are everywhere -- your laptop, your cell phone, your car, your calculator -- but people don't call them computers. Similarly, he said, your car will be robotic, your kitchen will be robotic, your personal fitness trainer will be robotic... but they'll be called cars, kitchens, and trainers. Not robots.

  • Training for robotics: a hypothetical investor in the audience asked what one should look for in evaluating the experience of people proposing a new robotic technology to VCs. The panelists all had different answers -- a background in psychology may help with the design of interfaces and interactions; a broad engineering base is needed to build up the electrical, mechanical, and software systems of a robot; membership in the target customer base lends credibility to the design. The only agreement seemed to be that a broadly experienced group is necessary for success.

So where is the industry headed? Everywhere, it seems. The good news is that not a single person in the room seemed at all pessimistic about the robotics industry; there's funding for startups, a healthy US defense research funding source, rapid growth of new technologies and new ways for people to interact with machines, and growing acceptance of robots working for and with humans. It's an exciting time.

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