View From the Valley iconView From the Valley

Checking Out Nasdaq’s Silicon Valley School for Entrepreneurs

There’s an ethos in Silicon Valley—people who have started a company give back by helping the next round of people who want to know how to start a business. The experienced entrepreneurs answer emails from newbies, take their phone calls, and give what advice they can.

For the past nine months, the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center has been trying to make it easier for the newbies to learn how to start a business, and the veterans to pass on their knowledge. It’s a San Francisco-based nonprofit started by the Nasdaq Educational Foundation and supported by Nasdaq, which owns the eponymous electronic stock exchange in the United States and a number of other exchanges around the world. The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center is offering a steady stream of group classes in things like startup law, crowd funding, diversity, PR training, founders equity, employment law, pitch prep, and mediation, along with individual mentoring, to just about any would-be entrepreneur who wants it. The main requirement? That you are working on your startup full-time, that is, that you are going all-out to turn your idea into a business.

Read More

Are Women Exiting Engineering Because Men Have All the Fun?

Where are all the women engineers? That’s a question that engineering educators and recruiters have been asking themselves for years now. Twenty percent of engineering graduates are women—but only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female. It’s not a pipeline issue; engineering schools have been graduating women for a long time now. It’s been easy to blame women leaving the engineering workforce to balance the demands of family, but is that really it? Many have said there’s a culture problem, but what exactly does that mean?

It turns out, according to a recent study, that at least a big part of it happens when women are in mixed groups that need to divide chores. Typically, the division pushes the routine or boring work at the women, the challenging or interesting work at the men.

Researchers Caroll Serron at the University of California at Irvine, Susan S. Silbey at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Erin Cech (who performed the research at Rice University but is now at the University of Michigan), and Brian Rubineau at McGill University conducted the study to try to get a better idea of just why women who made it through years of STEM education start migrating out of tech. The effort, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, looked at 40 undergraduate engineering students, male and female, spread among the four schools. The students were asked to write in diaries twice a month, from freshman orientation through graduation, about anything of interest in their lives. The researchers also conducted interviews with 25 students at each school during years one and four.

In their paper, published in the May issue of the journal Work and Occupations, the researchers say the problem starts early—the first time engineering students are asked to work in teams. About the women, they write, “Their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender-stereotypical ways.”

Here’s one example they gave from student comments:

There was this one case where, in our design class, two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop.

Once the women get out of the classroom, the researchers say, moving into internships and summer jobs, the problem continues. The women are assigned routine tasks while their male peers are offered more challenging opportunities. One example from a diary:

So I’m two weeks into my research position and for the first time in my “working career” I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. The last two summers I’ve been working in an engineering internship position at X, the military defense government contractor . . .. The environment was creepy, with older weirdo man engineers hitting on me all the time and a sexist infrastructure was in place that kept female interns shuffling papers while their oftentimes less experienced male counterparts had legitimate “engineering” assignments.

Ironically, the researchers noted, recent curriculum changes in engineering schools may be making the problem worse, not better.

“Many engineering programs have introduced a greater emphasis on design and team-based learning in the classroom, in essence mimicking and modeling the worksite, not only because it is arguably more creative and effective work practice but also because it is assumed that this will complement women’s social talents and enhance their opportunities for persistence in the field,” they wrote. “We find, however, that a gender differential in students’ professional role attachment tends to be produced in exactly those collaborative encounters in team-based design projects.”

Can this be fixed? The researchers suggest that engineering schools should consider “directed internship seminars” as one possible tool for ensuring that student internship experiences “are dissected to help people learn from the problems women face.”

In the meantime, is there anything women can do to fight the problem themselves? Valerie Coffman, chief technology officer at on-demand 3-D printing and prototyping firm Xometry, says there is. After considering the study results, Coffman told me that, while this kind of thing likely happens all over, she is indeed willing to believe it happens more often in tech. “In situations like this,” she suggests, “you need to be your own best advocate and aggressively seek out the most interesting and challenging projects. If your male peers try to task you with menial work, you can tell them 'no'. They're your peers, not your bosses.”

The Fathers of the Internet Revolution Urge Today’s Software Engineers to Reinvent the Web

On Wednesday, in the former San Francisco church that now serves as the headquarters of the Internet Archive, pioneers of the Internet and the World Wide Web joined together to call for a new kind of Web—a decentralized Web. It was a call for change, a call for action, and a call to develop technology that would “lock the Web open.”

And in the audience were the developers and entrepreneurs and thinkers who are going to try to answer that call. These men and women (because the next Web will have mothers as well as fathers), many sporting dreadlocks or tattoos, grew up with the Internet and love the Web, but believe it can be better and are determined to make it so.

This meeting, the Decentralized Web Summit, was part of a 3-day event organized by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, and sponsored by the Internet Archive, the Ford Foundation, Google, Mozilla, and others. It was as much a revival meeting as a tech conference, a feeling enhanced by the rows of pews that made up the seating. There was a lot of fan-boying and fan-girling going on, as the tech leaders of tomorrow buzzed about how they might get this or that luminary to sign their laptops. (Had there been printed programs—there were not—I’m guessing the rush for autographs would have been intense.)

Read More

Inside an Experimental Robotics Class: A Robot Sketch Artist, a Robot That Plays Dominos, and More

Each year, Stanford Professor (and IEEE Fellow) Oussama Khatib introduces a new class of students to control theory and sets them loose on a room full of robot arms, including the Kuka LWR, the Kuka IIWA, the Barrett WAM, and the Kinova Jaco. The students in the Experimental Robotics class are charged with making the robots do something, typically, something that requires computer vision and force control. Said Khatib: each robot team had to develop “a strategy to draw or to play or to track, [because] the heart of robotics is perception connected to action.”

Typically, these industrial robot arms are programmed to perform factory tasks, like assembly, welding, and painting. The Stanford students get a rare opportunity to use them in more imaginative ways.

Many of the teams did far more than connect perception to action with their projects, assigning tasks to their robots that required a lot of smarts—like figuring out the best move in a game of dominos, or staying one step ahead of a moving model space station to prepare for docking, or learning to play a tune on a xylophone by listening to it.  [video below]

And this year’s teams of students did something that was a pleasant surprise for Khatib: They all achieved their goals—not just intermediate steps—and that isn’t always the case for this class. (It was pretty amazing to me as well. It’s not often that I go to a fast-paced demo event and all the demos work without a hitch.)

That’s not to say these robots couldn’t get better at the tasks in front of them with a little more time. (The students spent the first half of the 10-week class learning basic concepts; they had less than four weeks to actually build their projects.) But for me, it was their quirks that made them loveable. My favorite robot of the afternoon was “Sketch,” a robotic sketch artist [video, above]. Sketch can take any JPEG image and render it as a sketch. For the event, its creators gave it an apparently simple task—the Stanford logo (a block “S” with a tree in front of it). They ended up apologizing for how long the robot took (about eight minutes) as it dabbed in the leaves of the tree, one by one, and went back to fill in various parts of the S, a dot at a time. Said one team member: “As you can see, it is meticulously dotting the leaves on the trees. We have a bit of an OCD robot, but the good news is that at the end it creates very realistic images.” But, to me, it’s the inefficiency that made it seem much like a human artist.

The projects:

  • Picasso: Picasso’s team designed a robotic drawing system that can be operated remotely, wirelessly translating a sketch made by a tele-operator into strokes on a white board
  • CameraBot: CameraBot’s team aimed to develop a robotic cameraperson. The robot arm smoothly tracks a selected subject, getting its instructions from gestured commands. Arm gestures also allow one person to transfer control to another person
  • Xylophone: This robot listens to a tune played on a xylophone and reproduces it on the same instrument. One challenge, its developers pointed out, was to get the robot to tap the keys in a way that makes them resonate instead of clunk. [video, below]
  • Mind Control: The mind control robot uses alpha waves, sent from a helmet worn by the user, to determine where to direct a laser pointer.
  • Docking: Inspired by the movie Interstellar, Docking’s team made a model space station and developed a robot that uses vision based navigation to dock with it.
  • Force Control: Force Control’s team developed a method for allowing a robot arm to maintain constant contact against another object, even when the object makes sudden moves or changes in orientation.
  • DomiBot: DomiBot’s team developed a robot that plays dominos. It uses computer vision to see what’s on each domino, runs an algorithm to understand the position and orientation of each piece, considers the played and unplayed dominos it can see to determine its best move, and moves a selected domino into position.  In the demo, the robot played a game called Mexican Train against a human opponent; the two tied.
  • Sketch: The Sketch robot turns any JPEG image (including photographs) into a drawing. In the demo, it used just a single marker, however, the team showed an attachment they designed that allows the robot to easily change markers for a multicolored sketch.

Stanford Class Aims to Seed a Reserve Officers Training Corps for Techies

On Tuesday, I listened to eight teams of Stanford students present their solutions to current national security problems on the final day of H4D: Hacking for Defense. They tackled Twitter analysis, hostile drone identification, ship tracking, spotting illegal activities through cloud cover around the globe, and other defense challenges.

The class, the first of its kind, was created by a group of Stanford faculty members and advised by former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry. It had support from multiple branches of the U.S. government, including the National Security Agency, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Army Cyber Command, the Veterans Administration, and other agencies that offered up a list of problems of interest.

The eight four-person teams were a mix of students ranging from undergraduate freshmen to PhD candidates, with academic interests including business, engineering, and computer science. Each group had 10 weeks to define a real-world problem, propose a solution, run its solution by at least a hundred potential end users and military “customers” (that is, the people who would eventually approve funding for deployment), demonstrate at least a minimally viable prototype (in the vernacular of the class, an MVP), and figure out how that solution could be deployed.

All the teams got somewhere—at least moving the needle towards a better solution—even if they didn’t completely solve a problem. Many teams intend to continue developing their technologies; one team even scooped up $200,000 in angel funding to support the next phase of its project.

Read More

Kniterate Updates the Knitting Machine to Be an Easy-to-Use 3-D Printer for Fabric

Knitting machines are anything but new. The 1801 Jacquard loom, an ancestor to today’s knitting machines, was the first programmable system to use punch cards. However, they are certainly due for an update. Punch card machines are still used today, along with systems that use printed patterns generated by CAD systems, and a few that connect to PCs to read patterns directly. Learning to use the design tools and the machines takes some effort; a lot more than sitting down at a computer and printing out a photograph or drawing.

Kniterate’s founders think it’s time that machine knitting became as easy as printing. They have developed Photoshop-like software for designing knitting patterns and a knitting machine that reads the patterns from an SD card. The company plans to sell its US $2500 system to schools and maker spaces, aiming it at people who might want to create, say, a scarf with a special design for a friend, but aren’t committed enough to knitting to buy and master a more traditional hobbyist knitting machine (which generally costs under $1000).

Company founder Gerard Rubio says he discovered 3-D printing in 2009 or so, and built his own 3-D printer from a kit. Then he went to fashion school, where he had access to punch card knitting machines. As a school project in 2014, he designed a knitting machine kit that could be built by hobbyists, launching it as the OpenKnit project. Kniterate, introduced this month at the HAX hardware accelerator’s demo day, evolved from that system. Rubio and lead engineer Shane Rogers explain how Kniterate works in the video above.

OpenBike Charges Phones, Lights, and Connects Your Bike to the Cloud

OpenBike has not designed an electric bike. Let’s get that straight at the beginning. The company reimagined what should be standard equipment in pedal-powered bikes in an age of battery-powered-mobile-networked-everything.

Anybody who rides a bike to commute to work, or in a serious recreational way, probably has battery powered clip-on bike lights (and has forgotten to recharge them). He or she likely has a handlebar mount for a smart phone—that also needs recharging. And that phone might connect to a fitness bracelet or other kind of monitor, and send data about the ride to the cloud.

Read More

To Recycle, or Not To Recycle? This Trash Robot Knows For Sure

If you’re at all like me, you have paused over those lineups of different colored bins at an airport, empty coffee cup in hand, and wondered where to toss it. It’s paper—recycle? Or should the lid go in recycle and the paper in landfill? And then you look in the bins and realize that the contents are all mixed up at this point anyway so it really doesn’t matter, it’s all going to end up in trash, unfortunately.

That is a problem startup Clean Robotics is trying to fix with its trash robot. The robotic system uses motion sensors to detect someone approaching and flip open a lid, load sensors to know when something is tossed into the bin, and metal detectors and a machine vision system that analyzes the objects to help determine whether they are recyclable or landfill. When it makes its decision, a simple system of trap doors and tilting motors directs the discarded object into the right bin.

Clean Robotics unveiled the TrashBot at the HAX accelerator’s demo day last week. The company will pilot its systems at the Pittsburgh airport and at Google’s Pittsburgh campus later this year. The company admits that the robot’s US $5000 price tag is a bit steep, but argues that some municipalities are already purchasing $4000 smart trash systems that don’t do much besides report when they are full, so it’s not crazy. Clean Robotics also envisions subsidizing future versions through targeted advertising, say, a coupon for Pepsi offered when you toss a Coke can.

You’ve Got the VR Glasses—But Do You Have the VR Jacket?

Startup Machina last week introduced a connected jacket packed with motion sensors, touch controllers, and vibration motors for haptic feedback. It calls this wearable the OBE, for Out of Body Experience, and thinks it will catch on with virtual reality gamers. The first generation OBE jacket will sell for $199; the company envisions later expanding into pants and gloves. OBE is releasing a software development kit through the Unity game development system, and expects the first games that work with the OBE jacket to be available in December. 

Machina has been around since 2012. In 2014, it released its first product, a jacket that acts as a MIDI-compatible music controller. Still, after checking out the product at the Highway 1 accelerator’s May demo day, I did find myself wondering whether this system is going to stand a chance against competition like Levi Strauss and Google’s joint effort to take connected clothing mainstream. However, OBE founder Linda Franco announced that the company has its first big order: Samsung is buying 500 jackets that it will use for software development and market testing. (And yes, the jacket is machine washable, though you have to remember to pull out a few key modules.)

Atlanta, Seattle, and Chicago are Desperate for Software Engineers, says Job Search Firm

Where are the most software engineering job openings? You might guess Silicon Valley, but you’d be wrong, according to job search site Indeed Prime. Silicon Valley has jobs, indeed, but also plenty of software engineers.

Instead, Indeed Prime reports, the biggest mismatches between software engineering demand and supply are in Atlanta, Seattle, and Chicago; the smallest overall deficit is in Houston, Columbus, and Dallas.

The company also reported that the hardest software engineering job to fill is DevOps engineer, followed by mobile engineer, database engineer, mobile developer, software developer, Java developer, general software engineer, software architect UI/UX designer, and front-end developer. Nationally, those in demand DevOps engineers are commanding average salaries of $110,000, and are most in demand in Atlanta, Kansas City, and San Diego. On the other end, front-end developers are being paid an average of $89,000 and are in high demand in Columbus, Boston, and Charlotte.


View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
Contact us:

Senior Editor
Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
Load More