I’ve been intrigued with robots since I was a little kid. When I was at MIT in the 1980’s, there was a huge movement around the future of robotics. A few of my friends, most notably Colin Angle, went on to do something and co-founded iRobot which he still runs 25 years later. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to robots or robotics in the 1990’s as I got caught up in the Internet, but started thinking about them again about five years ago. Over the past few years, as part of our human computer interaction theme, we’ve invested in several companies doing “robotics related stuff” including MakerBot (3D Printers) and Orbotix (a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone). I’ve also looked at lots of robot-related companies and thought hard about the notion that the machines have already taken over and are just waiting patiently for us to catch up.
Recently I met with Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor at CU Boulder in the Computer Science department. Nikolaus does research on multi-robot systems and has a bunch of great commercial ideas about robotics. As we were talking, we started discussing other people in Boulder who were working on robotics related stuff. It turns out to be a long list and Nikolaus asked “why don’t people talk more about all the robotics stuff going on in Boulder?” I had no clue so I said “let’s start a movement – titled Boulder is for Robots. Let’s get anyone doing robotics related stuff together and create some entrepreneurial critical mass around this, just like we have for the software / Internet community.”
We agreed that Boulder Is For Robots is a great call to action and are having our first Boulder Is For Robots Meetup on February 7th from 5pm – 10pm. Bring your robots – I’ll supply pizza and beer. You have to sign up in the Boulder Is For Robots Meetup group to find out the location.
In the mean time, following are some thoughts on the robot-related stuff going on in Boulder from Nikolaus. If you are working on something interesting, please add to the list.
Why “Boulder is for Robots” can be tied to a single observation: when I was working as a Post-Doc at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, almost everything we ordered to build robots came from somewhere less than an hour from Boulder. Why is this important? Let’s consider how Steve Wozniak developed the Apple computer, which revolutionized the computer industry from a garage. Did he really create a computer from scratch, transistor by transistor? Or did he emerge from hundreds of tinkerers that relied on a large community that provided mail-order electronic kits, do-it-your-self magazines, inspirational people, and hundreds of man years of university research? The bay area was indeed the place to be at the time with the Homebrew Computer Club and marketing genius Steve Jobs who convinced Wozniak to sell his design, laying the foundation for Apple. Building robots is much more complex than building computers, however: robots consist not only of computers, but also of sensors and mechanisms that need to be invented, re-combined, and modified to create a compelling product. I therefore believe that being part of a community is even more important for developing successful robot companies and having all the tools, know-how, and manpower close by provides a unique competitive advantage.
Boulder provides this infrastructure: For example, Sparkfun enables tens of thousands of amateurs and researchers to create electronic and mechatronic artifacts. They do that not only by retailing hard-to-acquire electronic components and innovative pre-fabbed modules that drastically increase the productivity of hobbyists, entrepreneurs and researchers across the nation, but they also provide free access to a wealth of educational resources that allow amateurs to mimic industrial processes, often just using kitchen equipment. Similarly, Acroname and RoadNarrow Robotics retails sensors and ready-made devices for building state-of-the-art robots, including laser scanners, motor drivers, and digital servos. All three companies actively develop hardware and software that make the integration of ever more complex mechatronic products possible in garages. They also contribute to a pool of “Can-Do” people that spin off companies.
Boulder turns out to be also a hub for manufacturing: close-by Aurora is home to one of the best deals in PCB Manufacturing ($33/each) in the country (Advanced Circuits) and the first – and still only – assembly service in the nation (AAPCB) that assembles single boards for less than $50.
While developers across the nation benefit from these Boulder-area companies, this unique ecosystem of tinkerers, leading manufacturing techniques, and suppliers create a vivid community that amplifies innovation in the Boulder area and already has attracted a series of successful robotics start-ups: For example, Modrobotics, a CMU spin-off, makes transformative robotic construction kits that could be the next “Lego”. Orbotix co-founded by a duo of young engineers from CSU and UNC that became part of the Boulder TechStars 2010 class and subsequently raised over $6m of venture money for their new gaming robot, Sphero. OccamRobotics, founded by a serial entrepreneur who came to Boulder from the bay area, is working on low-cost, autonomous pallet trucks that build up on recent breakthroughs in robotic algorithms, availability of open-source tools, and novel sensors.
Each these companies have in common that their founders identified Boulder as the place that will make them most successful – often moving here from other hot-spots for high-tech entrepreneurship and engineering. These start-ups are complemented by mechatronic giants such as Ball Aerospace, close-by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin; small and medium-sized companies that develop robotic equipment for satellites and defense organizations; by a myriad of self-financed tinkerers that develop everything from robotic insects to robotic wheel-chairs in their living rooms and next-generation agriculture systems at Boulder’s Hacker-space Solid State Depot; and of course, the University of Colorado of which many engineering programs are among the top of the nation and the world, and which has a strong research program in unmanned aerial systems.
My lab is working on our agriculture system’s most pressing challenges, robots that can assemble large-scale telescope dishes in space to see into remote galaxies, understanding how intelligence can emerge from large-scale distributed, individually simple components, and constructing robotic facades that help save us power. These efforts are complemented by hands-on classes such as Robotics, Advanced Robotics, Things that Think, or Real-time embedded systems, and others, to shape a new generation of engineers who think of computers as devices that cannot only compute, but sense and literally change the world.
Why now? Robotics has been an industry since the 1960’s when George Devol’s Unimate was sold to manipulate steel plates in a GM plant. Indeed, robots have revolutionized manufacturing, but still have not delivered on early claims of the field. Robot stunts delivered by the Unimate on the 1961 “Tonight” show, still remain a major challenge for artificial intelligence 50 years later: opening a can of beer, pouring it, or directing an orchestra. These commercially successful robots, which led to the raise of Japan to a major industrial power in the 1980’s, were not autonomous, but simply execute pre-calculated paths. This trend is finally changing right now, documented by companies such as iRobot, Husqvarna and KIVA systems who successfully market autonomous robotic products, and is mainly driven by exponential developments in computing (“Moore’s Law”), cell phones and cars – both industries who integrate computing and sensors at high density.
“Boulder is for Robots” is not only an observation, but also an imperative to bring entrepreneurs, tinkerers, and capital together to bring the next big robotic idea to life in Boulder by exchanging know-how, man-power, and tools, and combining them into great new products. In case you already knew that “Boulder is for Robots”, please comment on this post and share what you do!
Marc Andreessen recently wrote a long article in the WSJ which he asserted that “Software Is Eating The World.” I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think it goes far enough.
I believe the machines have already taken over and resistance is futile. Regardless of your view of the idea of the singularity, we are now in a new phase of what has been referred to in different ways, but most commonly as the “information revolution.” I’ve never liked that phrase, but I presume it’s widely used because of the parallels to the shift from an agriculture-based society to the industrial-based society commonly called the “industrial revolution.”
At the Defrag Conference I gave a keynote on this topic. For those of you who were there, please feel free to weigh in on whether the keynote was great, sucked, if you agreed, disagreed, were confused, mystified, offended, amused, or anything else that humans are capable of having as stimuli-response reactions.
I believe the phase we are currently in began in the early 1990’s with the invention of the World Wide Web and subsequent emergence of the commercial Internet. Those of us who were involved in creating and funding technology companies in the mid-to-late 1990’s had incredibly high hopes for where computers, the Web, and the Internet would lead. By 2002, we were wallowing around in the rubble of the dotcom bust, salvaging what we could while putting energy into new ideas and businesses that emerged with a vengence around 2005 and the idea of Web 2.0.
What we didn’t realize (or at least I didn’t realize) was that virtually all of the ideas from the late 1990’s about what would happen to traditional industries that the Internet would distrupt would actually happen, just a decade later. If you read Marc’s article carefully, you see the seeds of the current destruction of many traditional businesses in the pre-dotcom bubble efforts. It just took a while, and one more cycle for the traditional companies to relax and say “hah – once again we survived ‘technology'”, for them to be decimated.
Now, look forward twenty years. I believe that the notion of a biologically-enhanced computer, or a computer-enhanced human, will be commonplace. Today, it’s still an uncomfortable idea that lives mostly in university and government research labs and science fiction books and movies. But just let your brain take the leap that your iPhone is essentially making you a computer-enhanced human. Or even just a web browser and a Google search on your iPad. Sure – it’s not directly connected into your gray matter, but that’s just an issue of some work on the science side.
Extrapolating from how it’s working today and overlaying it with the innovation curve that we are on is mindblowing, if you let it be.
I expect this will be my intellectual obsession in 2012. I’m giving my Resistance is Futile talk at Fidelity in January to a bunch of execs. At some point I’ll record it and put it up on the web (assuming SOPA / PIPA doesn’t pass) but I’m happy to consider giving it to any group that is interested if it’s convenient for me – just email me.
If you don’t know Orbotix, they make Sphero, the robotic ball you control with your smartphone. And if you you wonder why you should care, take a look at Sphero on his chariot being driven by Paul Berberian (Orbotix CEO) while running Facetime.
We are looking for two new full time positions to fill as soon as possible. We need talented iOS and Android Developers that are not afraid of a little hard work and a little hardware! You must have an imagination. No previous robotics experience necessary but it doesn’t hurt. We want someone that can help make an API, low level protocols, implement games and work on other research and development tasks for Sphero. We expect some level of gaming history and previous experience in the field. There are online Leaderboards and some side tasks include coding up demonstration apps for our numerous interviews, conventions and for fun! We pay well, have plenty of food and beverage stocked including beer, redbull and the famous hot-pockets, are in downtown Boulder and literally play with robots all day/night long. Read our full jobs posting at https://www.orbotix.com/jobs/ for more info. Take a chance…. email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A post in the New York Times this morning asserted that Software Progress Beats Moore’s Law. It’s a short post, but the money quote is from Ed Lazowska at the University of Washington:
“The rate of change in hardware captured by Moore’s Law, experts agree, is an extraordinary achievement. “But the ingenuity that computer scientists have put into algorithms have yielded performance improvements that make even the exponential gains of Moore’s Law look trivial,” said Edward Lazowska, a professor at the University of Washington.
The rapid pace of software progress, Mr. Lazowska added, is harder to measure in algorithms performing nonnumerical tasks. But he points to the progress of recent years in artificial intelligence fields like language understanding, speech recognition and computer vision as evidence that the story of the algorithm’s ascent holds true well beyond more easily quantified benchmark tests.”
If you agree with this, the implications are profound. Watching Watson kick Ken Jennings ass in Jeopardy a few weeks ago definitely felt like a win for software, but someone (I can’t remember who) had the fun line that “it still took a data center to beat Ken Jennings.”
While that doesn’t really matter because Moore’s Law will continue to apply to the data center, but my hypothesis is that there’s a much faster rate of advancement on the software layer. And if this is true it has broad impacts for computing, and computing enabled society, as a whole. It’s easy to forget about the software layer, but as an investor I live in it. As a result of several of our themes, namely HCI and Glue, we see first hand the dramatic pace at which software can improve.
I’ve been through my share of 100x to 1000x performance improvements because of a couple of lines of code or a change in the database structure in my life as a programmer 20+ years ago. At the time the hardware infrastructure was still the ultimate constraint – you could get linear progress by throwing more hardware at the problem. The initial software gains happened quickly but then you were stuck with the hardware improvements. If don’t believe me, go buy a 286 PC and a 386 PC on eBay, load up dBase 3 on each, and reindex some large database files. Now do the same with FoxPro on each. The numbers will startle you.
It feels very different today. The hardware is rapidly becoming an abstraction in a lot of cases. The web services dynamic – where we access things through a browser – built a UI layer in front of the hardware infrastructure. Our friend the cloud is making this an even more dramatic separation as hardware resources become elastic, dynamic, and much easier for the software layer folks to deploy and use. And, as a result, there’s a different type of activity on the software layer.
I don’t have a good answer as to whether it’s core algorithms, distributed processing across commodity hardware (instead of dedicated Connection Machines), new structural approaches (e.g. NoSql), or just the compounding of years of computer science and software engineering, but I think we are at the cusp of a profound shift in overall system performance and this article pokes us nicely in the eye to make sure we are aware of it.
The robots are coming. And they will be really smart. And fast. Let’s hope they want to be our friends.
I do not want to tangle with an army of 10,000 of these. Especially ones that have lots of sharp pokey electrocution things built in to their foreheads.
I wonder what my golden retriever would think of these dudes. Now, what would have really been sweet is if I had one of these when I was 10 and could put it in my brother’s bedroom at night. Bwahahahahahahahahaha.
I’m completely laughing my ass off after watching Samantha Bee’s Future Shock – Roombas of Doom segment on Comedy Central.