The robotics industry is at an important crossroads. As machines play an increasingly important role in our work and home lives, a lot of difficult questions will need to be addressed, from proposed AI regulation, to automation-related job loss, to the level of control and autonomy we bestow upon our robotic counterparts.
Earlier this week, we were honored to host many of the greatest minds in the field on the MIT campus — the birthplace of much of this robotic innovation. Industry and university leaders joined us at TC Sessions: Robotics, including Amazon Robotics’ Tye Brady, Disney Robotics’ Martin Buehler, MIT CSAIL director Daniela Rus, ABB’s Sami Atiya and all three iRobot cofounders, Colin Angle, Helen Grenier and Rodney Brooks.
It’s impossible to cover all of the topics in such a broad and groundbreaking field over the course of a single-day event, but we did our best, from drones and Disney to household robotics and launching a commercially viable startup in the space. It was an amazing day full of great talks and incredible robot demos.
Thanks to everyone who helped us fill Kresge Auditorium on Monday, and for those who couldn’t make it out to experience the robotics breakthroughs first-hand, here’s the next best thing.
What’s Next at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Daniela Rus, the head of MIT’s interdisciplinary CSAIL lab, demoed four of her team’s most fascinating robotics projects. Rus stated that her passion is working toward a world where robots are pervasive in our lives, and the devices on-hand were a good demonstration of that breadth. In one demo, a robot is created on a 3D printer, hydraulics and all. In another, an origami robot folds itself into shape and goes to work powered by a magnet, while another, created from sausage casings, is designed to be ingested to help retrieve dangerous swallowed objects like batteries.
Is Venture Ready for Robotics?
Investors Josh Wolfe of Lux Capital, Helen Zelman Boniske of Lemnos and Manish Kothari of SRI Ventures talk with Connie Loizos about how robotics startups can grab — and keep — their attention. The panel also discusses the robotics hype cycle and whether we’ve reached a tipping point for VC interest in the category.
The Future of Industrial Robotics
Sami Atiya from ABB spoke to Ron Miller from TechCrunch about the future of industrial robotics, including how many jobs they could realistically take, how data could make them smarter and the actual potential for a hacked robot.
Collaborative Robots at Work
Robots may be replacing humans in the workplace here and there, but it’s more likely that you’ll be working alongside a robot than training it to do your job. Devin Coldewey talked about the challenges and opportunities of collaborative robots with Clara Vu (VEO), Jerome Dubois (6 River Systems) and Holly Yanco (UMass Lowell).
Robots, AI and Humanity
As artificial intelligence and robots grow in sophistication, so too do the ethical conundrums associated with them. How can we design these systems so that they reflect the best of humanity and not our greatest flaws? Devin explored these questions with David Barrett (Olin), David Edelman (MIT) and Dr. Brian Pierce (DARPA).
Building a Robotics Startup from Angel to Exit
Elaine Chen of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship moderated a discussion about robotics startups featuring Helen Greiner of CyPhy Works and Andy Wheeler of GV. The group discussed finding venture capital and the ways in which the space has evolved over the last couple of decades.
Robots at Amazon
Amazon’s Tye Brady expressed his views on the state of the robotics industry and how to build the ideal robotic system. By using Star Wars’ R2-D2 as a comparison, he talked about how companies can build robots. TechCrunch’s managing editor Matt Burns then pressed him on Amazon’s ultimate plan to replace the human workers in its warehouses with robots, which he ultimately claimed is not Amazon’s goal.
Building the Robot Brain
Greg Kumparak spoke to Deepu Talla (Nvidia, VP and General Manager of Intelligent Machines), Heather Ames (Neurala, co-founder and COO) and Brian Gerkey (Open Source Robotics Foundation, CEO) about “building the robot brain.” They chatted on the state of AI, on how more standardization might be needed moving forward to help robots from different companies communicate and where students and other new entrants into the field should focus to make the biggest impact. Heather Ames also announced a partnership with Motorola Solutions that will allow police to tap Neurala’s machine learning algorithms to let their body cameras find missing children amongst crowds of people.
When Robots Fly
Buddy Michini of Airware, Andreas Raptopoulos of Matternet and Jan Stumpf of Intel spoke to hardware editor Brian Heater about the state of the industrial drone industry. The conversation covered the rapid rise of drones as a robotics platform both in research and among consumers, and the ways in which unmanned aircraft are becoming an increasingly popular tool for surveying and data collection. The conversation also touched upon the regulatory and other technological limitations in mainstreaming drones for various tasks and how the technology is being used to help underserved communities.
Bringing Robots Home
iRobot CEO Colin Angle joined hardware editor Brian Heater for a fireside chat about how his company became the commercial backbone of the Boston robotics community. Angle discussed the many trials and errors of launching a robotics startup and why the Roomba was the exact right device to cement the company’s place as the leader in household robotics. The CEO also offered up advice for new students making the move from university research into a commercial market and discussed the importance of funding from departments like DARPA in helping robot companies stay afloat.
The Age of the Household Robot
Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Center (TRI), joined TechCrunch’s managing editor Matt Burns on stage to chat about TRI’s work in building robots that assist the elderly. Pratt explained that this is a passion of Toyota and addresses a growing need to provided assistance and care to a quick-growing segment of the population. Burns later asked Pratt to comment on Elon Musk’s recent call to have the U.S. government regulate AI, saying the technology is the greatest threat to our civilization — a notion not shared by Pratt.
Fireside Chat with Rodney Brooks
Rodney Brooks of Rethink Robotics talks with Connie Loizos about his upcoming book, which he hopes will dispel talk of AI as an existential threat to mankind (along with a little requisite shade thrown Elon Musk’s way). The iRobot co-founder and former MIT CSAIL director also discusses the pain points of building a robotics startup and the ethics of autonomous vehicles.