Mistaking performance for competence
A year or two before launching Actuator, someone on staff floated the idea of my writing a weekly robotics newsletter. I balked at the suggestion. Surely, I suggested, we would be struggling to fill the pages by week two. It’s not so much that I doubted whether there was enough robotics content to keep the engine running; it was more a question of whether there would be enough relevant robotics content.
We do a lot of vetting at TechCrunch. Not everything that crosses over the transom makes it on our site. There are a lot of reasons for this. For starters, we’re still a relatively small staff and there are just so many hours in the day. In addition to running our robotics coverage, I also run TC’s hardware coverage overall, including all the consumer news and reviews.
Curation is also an important part of the job. That involves due diligence, some research and choosing the stories we deem most relevant to our readers. That’s why so much of our robotics coverage revolves around startups and venture funding. It’s a lens through which we attempt to view technology at large.
I’d be lying if I told you that every week was an embarrassment of riches here at Actuator HQ (a one-bedroom in a Queens office managed by a mischievous lionhead rabbit mix), but I’ve thus far been happy with the flow of news. The pandemic truly transformed both the robotics industry and our coverage of it. Some weeks the pickings are slimmer than others, but by and large, I’ve been happy with the quantity and quality of stuff that crosses my desk.
Last week was a little slow. This week, not so much. In addition to the usual story roundup, I’ve asked a small cross section of investors a simple question with a complex answer: How will the SVB events impact robotics investing and startups? You’ll find some of those answers below, followed by a large and wide-ranging interview with robotics legend, Rodney Brooks.
But first, a quick note on ProMat: I’m going to ProMat.
A slightly longer note on ProMat: I’ve never been to the show before, but it’s increasingly become apparent to me over the past few months that I probably ought to attend at least once. What’s long been billed as a supply chain and logistics show has sneakily become one of the year’s biggest robotics events.
One of the things that makes my beat a bit tricky is how difficult it is to convey many of these technologies in an email. It’s important to get out there and see as many of these systems in person as possible. Sometimes that means spending a week in places like Boston or Pittsburgh. Sometimes it means heading to Chicago for a trade show — and hopefully carving out some time for the Dali exhibit at the Art Institute and my customary trip to Quimby’s and Myopic in Wicker Park. Whatever the case, I’m excited to head back to one of America’s best cities after five years away.
The event is in a few days, but I’m still very much in the planning stages. One surefire way to get some face time with me is to follow me on Twitter and/or LinkedIn. I’m planning to carve out a couple of hours for an informal meetup/office hours to talk to some investors and startups, likely in one of the city’s many fine coffee shops. If you’re interested, please vote here. Likely Sunday afternoon and potentially something else during the week if enough people are interested. More info soon (still trying to piece together my schedule).
Meanwhile, I take a couple of days off and suddenly the entire tech industry screeches to a halt. Now, I’m not saying that my decision to make up for working through a few weekends directly impacted the Silicon Valley Bank run. I simply think that the timing merits a closer examination. Obviously the Big Tech story of the week, month and possibly year, assuming Elon doesn’t buy Facebook.
SVB’s dealings are less central to my own output than they are to most of TechCrunch’s staff, but as you’ve no doubt picked up on over the past week, ripples are being felt up and down the industry. Aside from those firms with funds in the bank, I’ve been working to map out how it will impact robotics companies in the longer term. There are a number of robotics and AI firms in the Bay, of course, but it’s not at the same level as a Pittsburgh or Boston at the moment. Of course, many — or even most — of the firms investing in those companies have strong presences in the South Bay and/or SF. So much of the money we write about here has flowed through SVB at some point.
Over the past several months, I’ve asked dozens of startups how the economic slow down has impacted their ability to raise. Most of them tell me that it’s been a challenge. That’s already a huge shift from all of the automation firms that were flying high during the pandemic. At very least, this is going to be a new hurdle. Confidence, caution — these things matter. That’s doubly the case if you’re a founder who can see the end of the runway looming on the horizon.
Will we see more closures? More M&A? I asked a few investors, “How will the SVB events impact robotics investing and startups?” Here is what they told me:
Peter Barrett, Playground Global: Why the venture community decided to call in an airstrike on their portfolio companies is quite beyond me. If SVB rises from the ashes (seems like there is a glimmer of hope thanks to folks like Ro Khanna) — and we act to mitigate the weaponization of concentrated digital media — money may not become impossibly expensive for capital intensive technologies like robotics. On the other hand, now that we have motor memory for bank runs, things could get messy. How best would an adversary attack innovation in robotics? We saw how destructive a handful of influential tweets and emails could be in unwinding a valued and respected 40-year-old institution. Why bother with a cyberattack when a few well-placed uppercased words from apparently reputable sources can wound thousands of our most innovative companies?
Kelly Chen, DCVC: Robotics startups have an additional layer to their banking relationship, typically tying equipment financing and other debt structures to banking. Robotics startups are cautiously optimistic, after the administration did the right thing with SVB. Still, diversification and flight to quality will be top of mind, even at the expense of the best rate.
Abe Murray, Alley Robotics: We remain unwaveringly optimistic about robotics. While we anticipate the VC fundraising environment will become more cautious across the board, we don’t see robotics being uniquely impacted. Robotics companies provide material value to their customers and earn good margins as a result, making them excellent customers and investments for capital lenders in any market. They also have more diverse sources of funding than most VC-backed businesses (including CAPEX leasing and project finance), and there are still plenty of institutions and innovative financing partners who are ready to partner with great companies delivering value.
Murielle Thinard McLane, Intuitive Ventures: Robotics capitalization strategies will shift. Robotics has always been capital-intensive and requires investment in hardware as well as software. Many startups in the space relied on SVB’s unique venture debt offering and it leaves a gap in capitalization strategies. Consider that to develop a digitally native product like a surgical robot — and bring it all the way through to commercialization — costs will include both the classic and complex medical device innovation needs, but also investment in an entire ecosystem of services, support, training and market development. That means robotics startups will more than ever need to focus on capital efficiency and access to sophisticated investors [who] understand the requirements. This is a time when I would argue, strategic investors in the cap table can help robotics startups reach that goal thanks to their unique ties into the broader ecosystem. In the aftermath of SVB’s shutdown, an already slow funding environment will be even slower. On the macro level, investors are likely going to wait to see how the market settles, which will make for a tough fundraising environment. This will be no different for robotics investment and it will be felt even more deeply by mid- and late-stage robotics startups who raised prior rounds at high valuations during the investment boom. With robotics companies more reliant on equity dollars, investors will be particularly valuation sensitive and the funding environment will be even more competitive.
If you read Actuator with any frequency, you’re likely aware that I’m no techno-utopian. My skepticism, however, isn’t rooted in a lack of faith in human ingenuity (we can be quite clever when circumstances demand it) as much as a perceived lack of motive to implement technologies in fair, equitable ways that will benefit those who need them the most.
It’s something I’ve been mulling over this week, after rereading Rodney Brooks’ 2018 post, “My Dated Predictions.” The piece is an attempt to forecast the speed with which a spate of different technologies will arrive and be deployed. It’s something he’s promised to update at the start of every year until 2050, “as I will then be 95 years old, and I suspect I’ll be a little too exhausted by then to carry on arguments about why I was right or wrong on particular points.”
Fair enough. Though you’d be surprised by the level of spirited debate a 95-year-old is willing to engage in when it comes to deeply held beliefs. In the introduction to the initial piece, Brooks notes:
[R]ecently the early techno-utopianism of the Internet providing a voice to everyone and thus blocking the ability of individuals to be controlled by governments has turned to depression about how it just did not work out that way. And there has been discussion of how the good future we thought we were promised is taking much longer to be deployed than we had ever imagined. This is precisely a realization of the early optimism about how things would be deployed and used did just not turn out to be.
This is the “utopian” part of techno-utopianism. There’s a degree to which the TED Talkification of our brains has forced some blinders on us when it comes to predicting how technologies will be implemented. The truth is that many innovations are driven by profit motives, often by large corporations. That’s doubly the case with adoption. That means, in the case of the early internet, that we end up falling into the same patterns such technologies promised to liberate us from.
Brooks’ own pragmatism focuses on the limits of technology. He calls himself a “realist,” rather than a “pessimist,” and I tend to agree. I wrote about hype recently as it pertains to ChatGPT and its ilk. As I mentioned at the time, I had a front-row seat to the original 3D printing gold rush that has colored my view of subsequent hype cycles, including things like blockchain/web3. I don’t recommend the experience of having one’s faith shattered outright, but if you don’t come out the other end a little less credulous, you weren’t paying attention.
“In my view having ideas is easy,” Brooks writes in the 2018 post. “Turning them into reality is hard. Turning them into being deployed at scale is even harder. And in evaluating the likelihood of success at that I think it is possible to sort technology and technology deployment ideas into a spectrum running from relatively easier to very hard.”
I recommend serial entrepreneurs get some version of that tattooed somewhere on their person. On the fifth anniversary of the initial predictions post, Brooks added, “My current belief is that things will go, overall, even slower than I thought five years ago.” Who’d have thunk that he was actually being a secret optimist the first go-round? I would toss in some jokey reference about how “life comes at you fast,” but maybe the moral here is life actually travels a lot more slowly than any of us expect.
Amid late last week’s slow news cycle, someone reached out to ask if I’d like to interview Brooks on the occasion of his receiving the IEEE Founders Medal at the IEEE VIC Summit and Honors Ceremony in May. The pitch arrived along with a five-paragraph summary of his accomplishments. I didn’t need it, and if you’re reading this, you probably don’t need it either. Brooks has been a guiding voice in the robotics field for four decades, dating back to his long tenure on MIT’s faculty. Hell, he starred in an Errol Morris documentary about smart and interesting people.
I gladly agreed to speak to Brooks. Surprisingly, we’ve never spoken directly. Lora Kolodny interviewed him when he appeared at our first Robotics event back in 2017, and at last year’s show, Devin moderated a panel about HRI featuring Brooks and Clara Vu (with whom Brooks had worked when she was an intern at iRobot). We had a good chat earlier this week, which you can read here:
TC: What does your day-to-day look like as a CTO?
RB: Well, if you don’t count the last few days, I try to provoke people.
So, nothing new on that front.
I call what I do “making provocations.” I either write some code or do some design. It’s not what’s going to go into the product, but I I just try to say to engineers, “Why don’t we try to do this?” They’ll say, “We couldn’t do that. It’s impossible.” So, I do a crappy job of it. Then I think about it for a while, and they try to make it better and eventually do something good.
You’re one of the more pragmatic people in the field, so it’s interesting to set a starting point of “impossible.”
If you don’t try something out that’s hard to do, then other people will do it before you. So you have to try hard to do it. But you also have to be realistic about how hard things are and how easy things are. I’ve read some of the stuff you’ve written recently, and you talked about the humanoid race that’s happening. I think they’re totally unrealistic. They have no idea how hard the things are they’re saying they’re going to do in a year or with 20 people. One company I saw recently said they have 100 years of robotics experience between them. Last time I built humanoid robots — and I built more humanoid robots than any other person on the planet — I started with 1,000 years of robotics experience, and we just got a little, tiny way.
My suspicion is that a lot of companies have been around for a while, but the Tesla announcement forced them all out of the woodwork. I’m very much not a roboticist, but to me the hardest part is more the general-purpose part than the humanoid part.
Yeah, and the general-purpose manipulator in particular is incredibly hard. We’ve been working on robot hands since the mid-’60s, and they haven’t really progressed much since then. The most common robot hands are still parallel jaw grippers or suction cups for moving stuff in fulfillment centers. Nothing remotely like general-purpose manipulation.
As someone who — as you said — has built more humanoid robots than anyone, are you still bullish on the form factor?
The argument they’re using is exactly the argument I used in 1992, when I started doing it.
That we build structures for ourselves, so we should be robots that can operate in those structures.
Exactly. I’ve become less enamored with that over time. I saw it was, and that you actually make much more progress in the shorter term — and by shorter term, I mean 50 to 100 years — by building special-purpose machines.
Humanoid robots were part of what Rethink was working on.
Before that, the Cog and other humanoid robots, but none with legs. A few companies are doing legged robots, but they recommend you don’t stand near them. They operate in a very different way from how humans walk and they pump a lot of energy into the system when there’s a slight imbalance. If you’re nearby, you might get hit pretty hard by the legs.
Cobots were a big part of what Rethink was working on — the ability for humans and robots to work closely together.
Right, and we did it with arms, but not legs. We had very quick reactions to anything that wasn’t appropriate, and we just got the servers to suck the energy out of the system really quickly.
I think that’s something that most people don’t realize when they see the robots operating in places like Amazon warehouses: that’s mostly done in cages.
Precisely. You don’t walk around near those moving robots. They have safety systems that shut it down if a person goes onto the floor.
What happened with Rethink?
There were a couple of lessons. The proximate cause was the trade war with China. We were building robots in the U.S. and shipping them to China, and suddenly we got hit with retaliatory tariffs from China, whereas our competitors in Europe didn’t have them. There was a more fundamental problem, which was probably my fault, in that I let us build an expensive robot. Once it was an expensive robot, people wanted to treat it like a regular industrial robot, and they wanted repeatability. It was force-based, and we needed a much better sales and training organization to train the end users about how to use that robot different.
I still see the robots a lot in universities and other research centers.
Yeah, well, I say we were a total artistic success. We just weren’t a financial success. We changed robot shows forever. All robots at shows were in cages, and now they’re not. We had to fight like crazy in Chicago in 2013 to get approval for that. It’s just the way things are now.
Years ago, Melonee Wise told me Fetch was still building Willow Garage–style research robots because they’re a great recruitment tool, but you can’t really sustain a business on them.
At iRobot, we did the Create version of the Roomba that you could buy a 10-pack for $1,000. So that’s the standard people use for teaching robotics. But it was never a major part of the market for iRobot. It was a side thing. We thought that we had to help create more roboticists.
I’ve asked Colin [Angle] and Helen [Greiner] the same thing over years. It took iRobot something like a decade to land on the Roomba. What was the aha moment for you?
For me, it was when I went to Taipei in 1997. I was taken under the wing of a guy who was doing manufacturing in China, and I stuck around with him for a couple of weeks, getting the feel for how to do it. We were trying to build toys, and we knew we had to build them cheaply. We did a partnership with Hasbro, and we built a product called “My Real Baby” that was sold in stores. That was a humanoid. We learned how to build things cheap, and the thing with the Roomba was, “how cheap can it go?” We didn’t try to take a complex design and scale it. Instead we went and tried to ask people how much they would pay for it. When the answer was $200, that was the first piece of design. It had to retail for $200.
There’s been a big push in recent years to develop hardware-agnostic software solutions to help companies deploy robotics. Is Robust AI operating in that world?
Yes and no. We feel that a lot of these companies — because they’re dealing with existing solutions — are missing the boat where silicon is going. Silicon is putting tremendous amounts of processing right next to cameras, doing narrow floating point operations. Now you can do a lot of stuff, where as, I think existing mobile robots are still relying on lidar — a single, one-dimensional laser scanner — and you just don’t get as rich a view of the world. These cameras with these processors are incredibly cheap. You can get and run a lot of neural models and get a very rich 3D and labeled description of what’s in the world.
One of the things I appreciated in revisiting your predictions was its focus on eldercare robots. It’s been a thing in Japan for some time, but I don’t think enough people in the U.S. are discussing it. That makes the most sense to me as far as bringing more robots into the home.
Yeah, and I think it’s going to be a tremendous pull for anything that can help the elderly stay in their homes with independence and dignity. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, but you can say the Roomba helps people stay in their homes, because they can clean the floors without having to [do] much work. There will be a tremendous pull just because of the incredible demographic shift across the world, with less young people to look after older people. Anything that can happen there will be helpful.
I know Helen would staunchly disagree with me here, but the robot vacuum is still really the only game in town when it comes to mainstream home robot adoption. It’s been so long since the first Roomba came out. Why has it been so difficult to repeat?
I wish I knew, because I would go and do it!
Obviously you don’t know what the finish line looks like, but you have as good a grasp as anyone on what makes it so difficult.
Houses are cluttered, and they have steps. Even a one-inch step makes a wheeled robot’s life very, very difficult. I occasionally I see new solutions that can get up one-inch steps, but then they can’t get up four-inch steps. It’s an artifact of how houses are built and modified over time. That’s an incredibly hard problem. Staircases are killer.
I’ve heard a lot of discussion about the ways in which smartphone innovations have led to robotic innovations. I think the same can be said for self-driving cars. The key difference is that, unlike smartphones, we don’t actually have self-driving cars.
You’ve noticed. But we actually have a lot better driver assist than we had. That sensory information is being used and processed, but it’s still letting the executive decisions occur with the human because the long tail of weird cases is just endless. Just trying to have enough data to pull from is unlikely. Whenever we’ve changed the way transportation works in the past, we’ve changed the infrastructure. There was this promise of a one-for-one substitution, and I think that’s held up what could have been a lot of change to infrastructure.
It’s also just understood that there will be deaths with human drivers. The minute an autonomous car kills someone, it sets things back by years.
There are 35,000 deaths per year in the U.S. from car accidents. I’ve seen some technologists argue that if we cut it down to 30,000 with self-driving cars, everyone will think that’s a big success. I say no. The acceptable number of deaths from self-driving cars is probably about 10 per year, and if it gets more than that, we won’t have them. I’m not saying 10 people dying per year is acceptable, but 35,000, that’s a big difference. With self-driving, it’s going to have to be a much lower number, and it’s not rational, but that’s how it’s gonna be.
What’s your take on this latest ChatGPT hype cycle?
I think people are overly optimistic. They’re mistaking performance for competence. You see a good performance in a human, you can say what they’re competent at. We’re pretty good at modeling people, but those same models don’t apply. You see a great performance from one of these systems, but it doesn’t tell you how it’s going to work in adjacent space all around that, or with different data.
Have you seen anything in robotics over the past few years that’s really excited you?
The outcome from deep learning and image labeling. People call it “perception,” but I don’t think it’s the same as human perception. But how well you can label images is a real change, and we’re using it here, because you can do great stuff. As long as you don’t think you’re getting human-like performance, but a different sort of perception. It’s labeling, and as long as you stick with that and realize the limitations, you can build really interesting capabilities into robots, which were pretty unimaginable not too long ago.
First up on the link list is news that Verity just raised $32 million. The Series B comes as Ikea announces that it has deployed 100 of the Zurich-based firm’s inventory drones across 16 locations in Europe.
“We are investing in technology across the board so that our stores can better support customer fulfillment and become true centers for omnichannel retailing,” says Tolga Öncü of Dutch Ikea holding company, Ingka. “Introducing drones and other advanced tools — such as, for example, robots for picking up goods — is a genuine win-win for everybody. It improves our co-workers’ well-being, lowers operational costs, and allows us to become more affordable and convenient for our customers.”
Verity was founded in 2016 by Raffaello D’Andrea, who also helped launch Kiva, which was purchased in 2012 and eventually served as the basis for the behemoth that is now now Amazon Robotics. Warehouse inventory is one of the more intriguing applications I’ve seen for drones in recent years, levering their on-board image processing to keep track as goods move in and out.
A bunch of news from Zipline this week as the company showcased a new drone delivery platform it says is capable of delivering cargo up to 10 miles in 10 minutes. The P2 is an innovative hybrid approach, hovering in place when it reaches its destination and then lowering down a little robot that can steer itself on the descent to take the package the rest of the way.
“Just like modern cars use sensors and cameras to understand the world around it, our droid will have a robust onboard sensor suite, including GPS and visual sensors, which it will use to maneuver and help ensure a delivery site is free from kids, dogs or other obstacles,” Zipline engineering head Joseph Mardell says of the system. Co-founder Keller Rinaudo adds a bit of flare in a statement, claiming, “We have built the closest thing to teleportation ever created — a smooth, ultrafast, convenient, and truly magical autonomous logistics system that serves all people equally, wherever they are.”
Zipline says it’s planning to conduct 10,000+ test flights with 100 drones this year. It’s set to start deploying the system to customers in 2024.
Just this morning, we broke the news that Nimble raised another $65 million in a push to expand into third-party logistics services. The San Francisco–based startup has quiet launched multiple fulfillment centers across the U.S. Founder and CEO Simon Kalouche wouldn’t reveal the number or locations of the centers, only saying that there are “more than one and less than 10,” and they’re geographically dispersed.
He explained the shift in focus wasn’t the plan from the beginning, but rather a result of learning customer needs in the six years since the company was founded. “It evolved as we learned about the industry,” he tells TechCrunch. “I’ve been in hundreds of warehouses now, and as I went to more and more, I learned that everyone’s automating almost all the pieces of the warehouse, but picking is still the hardest part. Until you automate picking, you need people in the warehouse. You need to make warehouses ergonomic, safe and OSHA compliant for people. When you automate the picking step, you remove all of those constraints.”
The greenfield versus brownfield question has been a big ongoing debate in the industry. The former camp argues that the optimal factory model is one built from the ground up around automation, while the latter points out how prohibitively expensive that paradigm is. Nimble’s new offering embraces the greenfield approach, while offering a third way that lets retailers outsource inventory needs to a growing number of lights-out warehouses.
Kate’s got the lowdown on LexxPluss this week. The young Japanese startup is using a fresh $10.7 million Series A to bring its Kiva-style mobile robots to the U.S. Drone Fund led the raise, which also features HAX (SOSV), Incubate Fund, SBI Investment and DBJ Capital. SOSV’s Duncan Turner had the following to say about the firm: “LexxPluss has a significant advantage over other warehouse automation companies as they leverage a large technical team in Japan, renowned for both industrial robotics (37% of the global market) and the automotive sector (35% of the U.S. automotive industry).”
LexxPluss is also attempting to distance itself from the competition with a more open approach to its hardware and software solutions. “Since we disclose lots of technical information, our partners can take a look into every detail of our technology,” founder and CEO Masaya Aso told TechCrunch. “So they can understand how it works and how it can be deployed and used in their warehouse or factories. They can even [handle] maintenance by themselves. Our approach is to maximize product transparency and make collaboration much easier.”
ACR’s first system does the rebar tying, while the new one is designed to lift and move it on the job. “We are confident the combination of TyBot and IronBot generates a disruptive technology, meaning the time and cost savings are so significant on a job that it will disrupt the way our industry installs reinforcing steel,” says founder Stephen Muck.
CMU’s Robotics Institute this week showed off a new head-worn system designed to deliver some autonomy to people with motor impairments. The Head-Worn Assistive Teleoperation (HAT) makes it possible to control a mobile manipulator using voice. And yes, it’s embedded in an actual hat.
“Speech recognition, using audio captured by a wireless microphone worn by the participant, is used for selection of four robot modes: drive, arm, wrist, and gripper, as shown in the figure on the left,” CMU notes on the project page. “Signals from the head-worn interface are communicated to the mobile manipulator via Bluetooth and mapped to velocity commands for the robot’s actuators based on the mode the user is in.”
And finally, the application process is now open for TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield 200. The top 200 startups will be invited to exhibit at Disrupt in September. Neesha notes:
Out of the Startup Battlefield 200, 20 companies will be selected as Startup Battlefield Finalists. The finalists will pitch on the Disrupt main stage in front of the entire TC audience, receive private pitch coaching and be featured on TechCrunch. Not to mention, founders will pitch in front of global tier 1 venture firms such as Sequoia, Mayfield, SOSV and more. The winner snags the $100,000 prize and the coveted Disrupt Cup.
I want to see some robotics startups in the mix. Do me proud.
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