Silicon Valley conference addresses the future of robotics and its role in sustainability

We’re pretty spoiled here in the Valley. Almost every major city tries to copy Silicon Valley in some way or another, because this is where the magic happens. Right?

At the “Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley and Beyond” last Thursday, Silicon Valley, for once, wasn’t the example to follow. In fact, the world’s best tech hub was schooled by speakers from Boston, Pittsburg and other east coast robotics clusters.

Robotics is so unique because it is the branch of technology that most resembles humans themselves. In contrast to consumer electronics, which help us be more efficient (or less) but don’t “look” like us, robots are the closest things to artificial human beings because they are autonomous and intelligent.

Outside the industry, robots seem to carry a slight negative connotation, in part due to apocalyptic movies and an association with secretive military campaigns. The fear that “robots will take away jobs” is an oft-asked question to these speakers, but they dispelled the myth. Indeed, robotics has an enormous potential to optimize our lives and our economy, domestically, commercially, and militarily.

This event opened my eyes to the numerous applications that robotics can have in our lives. I have highlighted a few below.

Ocean-dwelling robots for monitoring pollution and global warming

The creator of the programming language Java, James Gosling, talked about his ocean robot company, Liquid Robotics. Their technology, the Wave Glider, collects data about the ocean, sends it back to shore via satellite and propels itself by continuously harvesting energy from the thrust of waves and its attached solar panels. This means the Wave Glider can travel far into the ocean, collect data in even the stormiest of conditions with the toughest of sharks (it’s happened), and not have to come back for months or years to refuel.

The implications are huge. Wave Gliders can:

  • Monitor radiation levels in the waters near Japan
  • Find oil patches in water to help BP oil exploration
  • Monitor marine mammals (According to Gosling, there is actually a lot of money in this)
  • Monitor pollution and global warming by measuring the chemistry of the ocean, including CO2 and oxygen levels

Robots for efficient warehouses (and supply chain logistics)

Kiva Systemsuses robots to optimize supply chain logistics in a distribution center. In March this year, Kiva was acquired by Amazon for $775M, and is one of the success stories in robotics (more on that in Funding). Kiva robots can move a warehouse in a weekend without losing a single unit, provides inventory stock in real time, and reduces time wasted in having humans move products around. In essence, these robots do what we’d rather not, and eradicate the chance of human error.

Robots in the workplace

What’s good about having your coworkers in the same office? You can catch them down the hall to have a conversation, and they can pop into your cube anytime to ask a question. Willow Garage’s Texai telepresence bot allows you to do just that with your coworkers who are physically far, far away. The Texai is the height of an average human, and has a telepresence screen at head level that has the face of your coworker in Indiana. The coworker can choose to pop into your cube to say hello at any time, by commanding the Texai bot to visit your office. The Texai remote presence system is currently only in prototype and a new company has been created called Suitable Technologies to commercialize this bot.

Willow Garage has taken an interesting approach to robotics: open-source. Executives from Willow Garage, Steve Cousins and Brian Gerkey, told us about their open-sourced personal robot, the PR2, which has been distributed to many graduate students and scientists around the world so they can tinker with it and make their own bot applications using Willow’s robot operating system (ROS).

Or take it from Meka Robotics, which makes robotics systems designed to be “human-soft” that can work alongside humans in the workplace. Meka’s demonstration videos showed that their bot can hold a tool, open your beer, and pick up your lunch from the café across the street (complete delivery with the elevator ride and all). With your personal butler at work, you’ll never have to leave the office again!

Robots in the home

A theme at this conference was smoothly integrating robots into the home, to help us with tasks we’d rather not do, or to help us conserve energy without putting the extra effort. Yoky Matsuoka, VP of Technology at Nest, talked to us about Nest’s learning thermostat that learns your electricity habits, including what time you wake up and get home from work. The smart thermostat “robot” then programs itself to make your home temperature ideal at all times of the day, be it summer or winter, day or night. In the process, the Nest smart thermostat saves energy and your electric bill.

Another robot application in the home is the robot sentry, which is infinitely better than a human security guard, because it can stand guard 24 hours, seven days a week, without blinking an eye.

Robots for commercial space exploration

“Humans understand the why of space exploration,” says Tiffany Montague, Director of Space Initiatives at Google. Until recently, space exploration has been largely limited to the confines of the government and the military. The Google Lunar xPrize is one initiative that’s trying to make space exploration private and commercial. The xPrize has a total of $30 million in prizes available to the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth. Teams must be at least 90% privately funded, though commercially reasonable sales to government customers are allowed without limit.

Why Sand Hill Road and Robotics haven’t meshed so far

The debate of the day was how to boost the robotics industry in Silicon Valley, a tech hub that seems friendly to social media, and not as friendly to robotics or cleantech. The most recent success story in robotics is Mick Mountz’ $775M sale of Kiva to Amazon. Mountz was here to tell us the story of Kiva, which started on a whiteboard in his living room (turns out you can’t afford a garage in Palo Alto unless you already have an IPO under your belt). He got rejected for funding by 82 people on Sand Hill Road. Now looking back, he prefers customer funding over VC money because it’s better market validation to have customers invest. So where’s the community that understands your problem? The answer is why Kiva eventually moved to the east coast. Valley venture capitalists tend to think robotics is science fiction, forever an industry of the “future.”

Venture capitalists invest in empirically successful industries, says Helen Grenier, the woman behind iRobot (the robot that cleans your home) and CyPhy Works. Unlike the SV poster children Instagram and Pinterest, the hard sciences of robotics and clean energy haven’t seemed to fit those characteristics that warrant money-throwing. But things are getting better. In 2011, $160M of VC funding went into robotics. Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva Systems has helped warm Silicon Valley venture capitalists up to the idea of robotics as a lucrative technology with many end markets. Perhaps, here in the Valley, we will soon move from the phase of “technology as a spectacle” towards technology as a way to make our lives more meaningful, our economy ever growing, and our earth a sustainable place to live.

Photos from the event can be found here: http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco/2012/05/07/robotics-slide-show/