Investing in the future of robotics

Investing in the future of robotics

short one This week, because I’m taking some time off. I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so I spoke with some of the leading names in the field to keep Actuator rolling. Last week we spoke to Joyce Seidopoulos, MassRobotics Chief Operating Officer. Next week, we’ll talk to Ken Goldberg of the University of California, Berkeley.

Right now, we have some thoughts on the venture capital side. Peter Barrett is the co-founder of Palo Alto-based Playground Global, which has invested in a number of major robotics companies, including Agility, RightHand, FarmWise, Fabric and Canvas Technology, and Owl Labs.

Q&A with Peter Barrett

Image credits: Courtesy of Peter Barrett

TC: What’s the biggest story about robotics in 2022?

PB: The great surrender of the autonomous vehicle. Ford and Volkswagen’s abandonment of the robot hub is another indication that autonomous vehicles are decades out of being ubiquitous. Self-driving vehicles may be inevitable, but they are certainly not imminent even though there are a lot of smart people and huge amounts of capital pouring into this space.

We’ve had self-driving vehicles driven by neural networks since the 1980s. I think we’re about halfway there.

The good news is that, in the meantime, we have mature technology that improves traffic by 30% and reduces fatalities at intersections by 90%. It’s called vertigo.

What are your biggest predictions for robotics for 2023?

The biggest trend in 2023 will be the realization that robots are better used to amplify people than to replace them. Robots as collaborators working for people in human settings are the best way to exploit the unique capabilities of both.

How profound is the pandemic’s impact on bots?

There are 500,000 job vacancies in the logistics industry in the United States at the moment. Similar gaps exist in other critical areas, in agriculture, mining, etc. We need more scalable and practical automation technologies to make people more productive and take over the boring, dirty or dangerous jobs that would otherwise not be filled.

What is an under-covered category that deserves more focus from robotics startups and investors?

Life science has not yet made its industrial revolution. Single life-saving therapies (such as CAR T) are unreasonably expensive, largely due to a lack of scalable automation and logistics. The lab’s processes are hampered by islands of incompatible automation and there are no common patterns or data formats, and humans are not integrated into the process. Companies like Artificial deal with the software layer to coordinate labs and pharmaceuticals, but new classes of automation systems are needed to address the physical layer.

How will automation affect the workforce in the future?

Human ingenuity and perception will be amplified by robust, trustworthy, and collaborative robots that actually do the heavy lifting. As stated above, it is all about amplifying people, not replacing them.

Are home robots finally having their moment?

The Roomba is over 20 years old and is still the only non-toy robot that has any useful role to play in the home. The simple genius of the original design has been replicated countless times but rarely improved upon: Ask Rodney Brooks about the gratuitous innovation of SLAM vs. random vibration.

We still don’t have robots that can cook, clean, or generally be useful around the house, largely because we don’t have the knowledge or ingenuity to reliably do work in unstructured environments. Like the technological gaps that must be filled to deliver self-driving vehicles, these capabilities will eventually emerge but don’t hold your breath.

What more could/should the US do to encourage innovation in this category?

What about the robotics/AI equivalent of the CHIPS Act?

#Investing #future #robotics

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