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Evenings in Barcelona

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Evenings in Barcelona

I haven’t finished walking everywhere on the floor at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona yet (hopefully I do so this afternoon), but it seems like the vast majority of robots there are either for vacuuming or for greeting people. With Pepper not present, there could be a good opportunity for someone to enter this market. Who knows?

At the show, the pair of Xiaomi robots were the most notable, yet unimpressive. After covering the CyberOne robot in writing seven months ago, it was good to finally come across it in person. It was obvious that it was in the primitive stages, with its awkward movement, which made me unsure of phone manufactures’ deep involvement with robotics. There was no demonstration in the booth this year, making it basically just a costly robotic dummy.

An image of the CyberOne robotic human produced by Xiaomi was seen at Mobile World Congress 2023, courtesy of photographer Brian Heater.

CyberDog was operating, at the very least. It was much smaller than I had imagined, it stood at roughly 1.3 feet. The majority of the demonstration was comprised of some walking around and sitting up/begging. For a toy, this item is quite costly; it costs $1,600. It also has some highly evolved hardware inside it. It is energized by a NVIDIA Jetson and it has an Intel RealSense depth sensor on the nose. The 4-legged robot dog shape has become commonplace because of Boston Dynamics’ Spot.

I had the chance to catch up with Marc Raibert, the founder of Boston Dynamics, while attending the TC City Spotlight: Boston event recently. Contrary to the situation two years ago, Raibert is no longer the CEO of the company. Nevertheless, Boston Dynamics is much more determined to make money through their two robotic creations, Spot and Stretch.

“Picture courtesy of TechCrunch”

In August, Hyundai, the parent company of Boston Dynamics, unveiled the Boston Dynamics AI Institute with Marc Raibert as the chief. Compared to Boston Dynamics, this institute’s research isn’t pushed by the same requirement to market their products. In case you were unable to attend the live discussion, here is the transcript from our conversation:

Did the founders always intend for Boston Dynamics to remain in the Boston region, disregarding the clear geographic connection of the name?

MR is a person who has been living in the Boston area for an extended period of time.

I experienced a special connection with Boston from a young age as my mother had grown up there. I thoroughly enjoy this city and even studied here in the past before I moved away for 10 years. Later, I became a professor at MIT for 10 years before I founded Boston Dynamics. This wasn’t necessarily because Boston has such a great robotics scene, it simply felt like the right place for me. We set up an office in California.

Was that the outcome of a purchase?

The purchase of Kinema, which was located in Palo Alto when it initially joined us, was the reason for our presence in Mountain View, with an office still there to date.

I was unaware that you had moved away from Boston for a decade. What kept you occupied during that time?

I worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab for three years in the 1970s, followed by a stint of six years at Carnegie Mellon, teaching at the Robotics Institute and the computer science department.

Was there a high number of robotic programs used by JPL in the 1970s?

The beginnings of the Mars rover first came in the form of a mockup in the 1970s. It resembled a car and had a sliding joint on the Stanford arms. Cameras were also included and various teams began working on its development.

“Picture Courtesy of Boston Dynamics”

What was the magnitude of the outflow of people to cities like San Francisco and New York during the early days with regards to the many discussions about brain drain?

I don’t think too many people from our team have chosen to move to the West Coast. We did experience some poaching when we were part of Google and several individuals from our section relocated out there. But, seeing that Boston has a lot to offer in terms of technology, education and so forth, we haven’t seen too many people opting for the West Coast.

What changes have occurred to Boston and the surrounding area since the establishment of the company over 30 years ago?

I am uncertain how many startups exist near us. There are plenty of logistics businesses, some of which utilize robotic technology, plus there are social robot innovators such as Cynthia Breazeal’s Jibo firm and its associates. It seems that new companies come into being all the time. To be honest, my thoughts stretch beyond our area and toward the whole world, since Boston Dynamics has made its Spot robots universal. It is estimated that there are approximately 1,000 of them.

Clearly, when considering a facility devoted to roboticists and AI experts, there are advantages associated with the physical setup.

The recruiting here is quite good. Amazon has robotics experts. Google is positioned nearby; they are not focusing on robotics here in Boston, but they do have many specialists in AI and software, who can be potential hires. There is a plentiful number of technicians, but we are recruiting from all around the country and even some from Europe. From all over the world, we have had applicants applying to us.

What changes have you made to your daily routine since you stopped being the CEO?

At Boston Dynamics, I realized we were beginning to make more business-related decisions, but I concluded that wasn’t the right route for me to take. I remembered listening to a speech given by Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman Sachs, where he discussed his determination to step down from his post while things were still good. He said that if you resign when there’s a problem, people tend to think you were undeserving of the job and were removed. However, it can be troublesome to take action when things are going well since it’s so enjoyable. So, it’s essential to take action at that time.

After hearing what he had to say, I was persuaded he was correct. Additionally, our shift towards commercialization led me to become chairman and name Rob Playter as our CEO. Rob had been working with me for 27 years, mainly as my assistant, so the decision was easy. I was nearly at the age to retire, and with no more duties for me to carry out, I thought about leaving the company.

Once Hyundai had approved money for the institution, I made up my mind to be there everyday to labor and motivate the other people involved. It has been amazing. I’m completely in the middle of it again, with my full excitement.

What impact did the Hyundai purchase have on the shifting focus towards creating more commercialized products and initiatives?

It started while we were still at Google, and then four years with SoftBank. We shifted from thinking about the future to being more focused on what our products were and how we could be more tight with financials. Robert Playter has been driving toward commercializing things more, but for me, I’m more of a researcher and prefer to work on long-term ideas that would set the groundwork for robots in generations to come.

Was the AI Institute included in the Hyundai agreement from the start?

Following my assuming the role of chairman and feeling bored, I wrote an outline of ideas and sought out several billionaire investors. I managed to find one willing to invest at a level I wasn’t completely satisfied with. Around the time the outbreak of COVID occurred I eased off the search. Then, after the Hyundai deal concluded I pitched the plan to my fellow colleagues and thankfully got the go-ahead.

What is the nature of Hyundai’s partnership with the institute besides the obvious four hundred million dollar donation?

They are the singular holders of stock in the present plan. It has been extremely cooperative. I communicated with a few directors concerned, and furthermore [Hyundai’s] director on a consistent [foundation]. He is an authentic devotee. He is truly dedicating himself to what’s to come [of] programming, AI and different first-class advancements. EVs are essential to Hyundai to HMG.

Can a multinational automaker be convinced to invest in pure research?

The institute has only been established recently in the summer. It’s hard to tell how long it will last right now. My suggestion is to steer away from products, because you are bound to do deliverables quarterly and yearly if you do products. These deliverables must meet the needs of many customers. The institute has plenty of useful resources, but they lead to different paths. If you want to bring an innovative vision to life, it should come from the people who are programming it. I am proud to declare that we don’t produce products. At this time, there is no-one attempting to control me.

Did the mission statement of Boston Dynamics initially advocate for a policy of avoiding certain products?

We were in the money from the get-go due to not having any external investors up until Google bought us nearly two decades later. To make ends meet, we did a lot of contractual work and likewise, had a few software products that brought home some bacon.

What is the aim of the institute if not productization and commercialization, and what will become of the intellectual property and patents created?

We have a comprehensive strategy. We can do split-offs. For some, these divisions are viewed as a way to monetize. To me, it is a way to keep the organization safe from any potentially harming products.

What research possibilities does the institute provide that would not be available in a university environment?

The university is comprised of a highly intelligent student body with lofty ambitions and a corporate laboratory that stress team collaboration and have resources available like hardware, software, sensors, and electronics. The institute, though, is cut from a different cloth: it has a greater scale and will be staffed with about 50 engineering personnel in addition to those located in the research groups. We are endeavoring to bring the future into the present and to address the principal difficulties in robotics, not just the present necessities.

The modifications made to the image were done by Boston Dynamics.

Are there any advantages to designing a robot that takes a bipedal form, like Atlas?

I’m uncertain. Elon is of that opinion. It’s thought provoking. In contrast to that, I lean towards referring to Spot as a general-purpose robot, since we designed it not just for one particular application. It’s a software that can easily be modified to suit the user’s needs. At this time, we have roughly 1,000 of them in different locations, exploring the possibilities available. We’re examining how efficient it is. The time and money used to establish this program can be covered quickly and it can be useful for a lot of scenarios. At the institute, we’re currently in the process of making plans for potential projects. We’re asking our skillful members of staff for their ideas. The challenge lies in deciding between robots that are capable of carrying out multiple tasks, or robots that specialize in one particular area. We will probably select a few activities that cover both possibilities and observe the outcomes.

What did you think of the Tesla Optimus presentation?

I assumed that they had completed far more than what I had anticipated, yet they have still got a lot more to do. I found the exterior design of the unused robot quite appealing. I personally drive a Tesla, and have owned a few of them. I truly sympathise with Elon Musk in spite of the recent Twitter allegations. I consider him a rare genius, and I would never write him off.

What was the significance of the company signing an agreement regarding the use of robotic weaponry?

Many of the workers had strong feelings about not having the robots weaponized. They had numerous worries about the consequences of arming a robot and wanted to make clear that they shouldn’t be doing it. Some were unhappy that it seemed other businesses had just quickly attached weapons to the robots without taking the necessary safety precautions. It’s a concern similar to the possibility of mistakenly being injured by someone on your own side.

Organizations that are looking to employ robot technology

The Boston Dynamics Artificial Intelligence Institute is currently advertising 11 different positions, with plans to offer more job openings in the near future.

Current information or reports about recent events.

Source of graphic: Figure

Let’s discuss what’s the latest. To begin, Figure has had its emergence from stealth mode just this week, six months after our initial report about it. This has revitalized the conversation about robots that can serve many functions and humanoid-like design, something we’ve seen in Tesla Optimus early demo. Figure 01 wants to play a crucial role in this conversation.

Brett Adcock, the initiator of Figure, reported to TechCrunch that the team consists of those with backgrounds from Boston Dynamics, Tesla, Apple SPG, IHMC, Cruise [and Alphabet X]. An aspiration they carry together is the desire to work towards a better future for humankind via the merging of Artificial Intelligence and robotics. To that end, it has been their privilege to recruit those around the world with expertise in Artificial Intelligence, controls, electrical engineering, integration, software, and mechanical systems. The team is of the opinion that we have now got to a place where we can make robots which previously were only part of research and development over the last twenty years available commercially. This is a long held ambition of a lot of people on our team.

“Picture acknowledgements to Renovate Robotics”

An exciting new business has recently come onto the market. Renovate Robotics is producing utility equipment to facilitate the job of setting up roof shingles. Roofing is both a peril and a frequent task so it’s an ideal fit for cutting-edge technologies.

Dylan Crow, the co-founder of Renovate Robotics, expressed to TechCrunch that he had observed many tech startups transition during his career at SOSV. He was particularly interested in those tackling climate-focused projects with a mission to revolutionize. Consequently, he has strong trust in his colleague, Andy, and believes he has the capability to get the business off the ground. I am certain that there is a great connection between us and I strongly believe we should take the chance.

I believe that’s all I can manage this week. I’ll be seeing you back in America. Goodbye.

This image was taken by Bryce Durbin for TechCrunch.

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