When Suitable Technologies announced that it was absorbing most of Willow Garage last week, we pinged both companies to see if we could get any additional information about what was going on. Yesterday, we spoke with Scott Hassan, "the key software architect/developer of Google" and the founder of both Willow Garage and Suitable Technologies, about why it was the right time to close down Willow, and what this means for Suitable.
What went on at Willow last week?
Basically, what I've decided to do is to concentrate the resources. What we call remote presence, or Beam, is an invaluable technology. It has a lot of potential, and the biggest problem I have right now is resources. Willow had a lot of resources, and I controlled that company.
I started Willow Garage in 2006 with the idea of making autonomous personal robotics. I was a little bit optimistic, and I thought it would be much easier to do than it actually is, and the biggest problem is actually finding a market. Along the way, while building the PR2, we built the Texai, just to help us build the PR2. And I was extremely interested in that, for some reason, because it was so useful, and it was so much easier to build than the PR2. It was actually possible to get it to be affordable, whereas with the PR2, making that thing affordable to have in your home or in your office would be a huge challenge.
An ecosystem has not been built up around personal robotics yet, and there are so many issues around that, whereas Beam is much simpler. It's like a gateway drug: how to actually get advanced robotics into the real world is through this mechanism.
Why was now the right time for this transition?
I think the reason why now is better than, say, a year ago, is that a year ago, Beam had not come to market. It turns out that it's easier to build something with a small team to start off with, and then once you build that structure, you can start scaling. So now, we can add Willow, and we can build on top of that.
I think most research is done. At least, the research I need to have done. Now it's all about product. And it takes a hundred times more people to make an actual product.
With all of the new resources that Suitable has from Willow, what are you hoping that Suitable will now be able to accomplish?
Short term, we'll be working on the Beam project as it is, and then we'll be working on more advanced developments of Beam. Willow was less product focused, and more development focused. Suitable Technologies is very product focused. We developed a lot of technologies at Willow, and now we need to go and make it happen.
Do you feel like Willow accomplished everything you wanted it to accomplish?
The goal was to do amazing things in robotics, and to really develop platforms so that someone who wanted robots to be the world could actually accomplish that. And the rationale is the computers are invaluable to the world right now, and it took many many years. It didn't happen overnight. It may take 20 or 30 years for us to see robotics in our lives, and it has to start somewhere. The PR2 is available at universities all around the world, and there are people being trained right now on how to use the PR2.
Computers that can do things that are hard for you to do, and things that are easy for you to do, are very hard for computers. Simple things, like just picking something up, are so incredibly complicated for computers. Robotics is really a software problem. It's not a hardware problem. The brain is the most important piece of the whole puzzle. And that's why I always want to have a person in the loop, because your brain is something that we can't even come close to with computers.
What does the future look like for Suitable and Beam?
There are all these people out there who are retired, and their brains are still great, but maybe their knees are not very good. So they're in their home retired, but I'm going to put them to work. They'd be able to give advice to people, or do inspections, and make some extra money. They can work from their own home, and all they need is Internet.
The nice thing about remote presence is that it answers a very fundamental problem of whether robots are going to take away our jobs. I think that it's going to take away some jobs, but it's actually going to create more jobs than it takes over. What if you had the ability to remote presence, or remote work? Or place-shifting, the ability to shift your place immediately, on demand? So that's some of what we're working on, not too give away too many secrets, but a person's always going to be in control.
While we've always liked to think of Willow Garage as a pseudo-magical company that existed purely to do research for the betterment of robotics, it sounds like the reality is that from the start, Scott hoped that Willow's research would result in robots for people to use to make their lives better. Throwing products into the mix changes the game completely, which is why Willow itself preferred to spin out companies instead.
Of the handful of companies born out of Willow research, Suitable is the one that can really affect the lives of people like you and I. Remote presence has a huge amount of as-yet unrealized potential, and it may be that the same level of dedication and knowledge and expertise that allowed the PR2 to revolutionize research robotics would be well spent on revolutionizing telepresence robotics.
As for the future of Beam, Scott may not want to give away any secrets, but I'm happy to speculate. With Scott's vision for Beam enabling remote physical work, we could be looking at a telepresence platform equipped with some kind of manipulator, turning telepresence into truly productive teleaction. Oops, excuse me, Teleaction.™ As Scott says, robotics is (arguably) a software problem, and if you forget about true autonomy and just accept the fact that you'll always have a human user in the loop (which is what Scott is planning), then many if not most of the most difficult software problems are simply solved.
It's not hard to imagine what this sort of future would look like. At some point, it might make sense to invest in a Beam for your house. Then instead of hiring a cleaning service to send humans to do your laundry or your dishes, someone would just Beam in and take care of it. It would be less efficient than having a human there, of course, but since a Beam user could come from anywhere in the world, it would also likely be a lot cheaper. Or maybe there'd a web service where I could say "I'll pay $1 for someone to Beam in and fetch me a soda," and some random user could complete the task for me.
This may be more my dream than Suitable's dream, but Scott Hassan certainly has a vision. And he's invested heavily in Suitable and Beam to make it happen. We're absolutely going to miss the pure research that Willow Garage was famous for, but for getting robots into our homes and making our lives better, Suitable Technologies may be the next company to watch.
Many thanks to Scott Hassan for talking with us.
Image: Willow Garage
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.