We recently attended Xconomy’s Robo Madness – the A.I. Explosion Seminar in Boston last week. The event featured a number of panelists and discussions around the current state and future of robotics technology and business. Startups, VC’s, established robotics firms, and researchers all participated, sharing their views on a variety of topics.
Robots have been around for some time, yet adoption has been limited mostly to the manufacturing sector and in isolated areas not near humans. This is changing as companies such as Rethink robotics and others provide robots that are more “aware” of their surroundings and can work side by side with humans, or other robots – collaborative robotics. This trend, the forecasters say, will lead to robots being integrated into our everyday lives. Computing took a similar path – computers were initially only used by large corporations or academic institutions until the advent of the personal computer (and subsequently the smart phone). Now, computers are part of our everyday lives.
Robots will benefit from work being done in the field of cognitive ergonomics – basically a way of designing products that can fit with the way humans think/act (vs. humans learning how to control the product). Work in the area of AI and the understanding of human speech so that we don’t have to issue specific commands, but rather simply say what we want in a more natural way of talking will eventually be incorporated into robots, making it possible to more naturally interact with them. Apple’s Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Amazon Echo, etc. are all examples of the continual evolution of this technology.
Autonomous robots are also benefiting from the work being done in reducing the cost of hardware (Computing, sensors, LIDAR, cameras, etc.) as well as the developments in mapping, planning machine vision, etc. iRobot’s new Roomba 980 claims it can vacuum an entire level of your home by creating visual landmarks on its map so it doesn’t lose track of where it is or where it’s been.
So what is my takeaway from this? It seems to be that we’re not at an inflection point, but rather that the applications for robots are still evolving as the technology evolves. As robots become more “friendly” and have the ability to safely exist with people, their application into our everyday lives will certainly increase. But it will take time – the successful companies will figure out real value add (vs. a novelty) where there is a real need and value. And investors need to be patient as the “hockey stick” growth projects are likely more fantasy vs. reality.
Barry is responsible for Acorn’s sales and business development activities in the eastern United States.