Posts Tagged start ups

A long strange trip

We just returned from a robotics exhibition in San Diego. That was not the long strange trip I had in mind however.  Okay, the robot (Vigilus-MCS) that we brought along had a long strange trip – including a short stop by the security team at the Hoover Dam, but I was thinking more about the trip that we began about 4 years ago, when we started on the current robot platform. The philosophy at Gamma Two has never been tightly aligned with the current trends in research. We are not big on large, all encompassing theoretical research. We focus on solving real-world problems. Sometimes that means we need to do cutting edge theoretic research to come up with the solutions.

The Vigilus Robot on the demonstration site during site set-up

The Vigilus Robot on the demonstration site during site set-up

We were driven by a question when we started this project: “Why don’t we have robots working along side us every day?”  Or, to put it more simply “Where’s my robot?” That led to several years of theoretic research, which culminated in two things. The second was our technical book “Robots, Reasoning, and Reification,” which summarizes the open problem that stood between us and functional robot co-workers. The book outlines a theoretic solution to the problem. I suppose that we could have stopped there.

But, like I said, we are out of step with the pure research community.  We knew that this was the case, since we have been active members of the Performance Metrics for Intelligent Systems (PerMIS) community for over a decade. This conference is run by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), they have an interest in measuring the ‘intelligence’ of intelligent systems. For the last several years, Louise and I have been on the program committee for this conference. Every year we would be part of a group of researchers pushing the limits of what we know about making computer and robotic systems smart. We would see dozens of new and untested theories every year. But, we weren’t willing to propose a theoretic solution, unless we knew that it worked.

So, the first thing that came out of the years of research was a functioning robotic brain, one that enabled the robot to see the world in a way that is similar to the way living systems see the world, and reason about the world in a way that is similar to the way living systems reason about the world.  Of course the brain wasn’t complete, but we had a ‘proof of concept’ prototype that people could work with. It didn’t do much, but it did things in the right way. There’s a short video of the robot updating its model of the world, and keeping track of objects. This was done in November of 2008, and shows the first generation proof of concept robot. When I compare that system with the robot we took to San Diego, I realize just how long a trip it has been.

Up to this trip we have been focused on researching the theory of robotics, then the practicality of developing a robot.  Then we spent enormous amounts of time and energy looking for money to fund the R&D. But we turned a corner this month, a big corner for the business.  We were invited to pitch our company to the assembled investors of the Angel Capital Summit, put on by the Rockies Venture Club.  We were also selected as one of six companies to present “cutting edge technology” in ground robotics to the buyers at the NDIA Ground Robotics Conference an Exhibition.  They both occurred on the same days, last week. The same days that the PerMIS 2012 conference was running.

This is where the long strange trip really became apparent. Five years ago, there would have been no question, we would have been trading ideas with some of the best researchers into machine intelligence in the world. Two years ago, we would have been pitching our hearts out to a group of investors, in hopes that one of them might be interested in becoming part of the ‘next big thing’.  This year there was no question, we were going to be presenting our robots to the people who can buy them and put them to work, making lives better.

Like I said, it has been a long, strange trip.

Where’s your robot? Ours are being built by Gamma Two Robotics, here in Colorado.

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“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”

There is a scene in the film “The Graduate”, in which the protagonist, Benjamin, is getting unsolicited advice about his future from Mr. McGuire:

I have just one word to say to you...

I have just one word to say to you…

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

I was thinking about this last week, when I was attending a meeting of the Colorado Robotics Association. This is a relatively new organization, they will celebrate their one-year mark in April, and it is made up of business people, engineers, and academic researchers who focus on robotics.  What I find most amazing is the number of institutions and individuals involved in robotics in Colorado. At this meeting there were 23 individuals, representing 17 different institutions, including the major universities, companies renging from the very large, to small start-ups.

There was a palpable energy in the discussions that ran around the breakfast table. Yes, all these people got together for breakfast at a local restaurant.  People were generating ideas faster than they could be written down, and when the meeting separated into smaller brainstorming groups, the noise level exploded. The focus of the meeting was a brainstorming session for raising the general awareness of the size and activity level of the robotics industry in Colorado. There was a secondary focus on how to take advantage of the synergy between the various institutions and businesses.   I heard a robotics start-up company meeting a company that specializes in developing production models out of prototypes, a professor teaching robotics discussing ways to help promote the upcoming BEST competitions.

And that is when it hit me.  “Plastics.”

It is hard to remember, and for many people, they never experienced this, but 60 years ago, there were only a few plastics available. And many of these had significant trade-offs in appearance, strength, and durability. However, as Mr. McQuire observed, the plastics industry was going to revolutionize modern industry, and massively expand the range of products. Incidentally, it was also going to make a lot of people a lot of money in the process.  More recently, it was like sitting around when there were a handful of personal computer manufacturers, and the machines really didn’t do very much. But, the energy and excitement fuelled the promises, and look at where we are now. Incidentally, the personal computer market was also going to make a lot of people a lot of money in the process.

The robotics industry, at least here in Colorado, is poised on the runway, ready to take off. The technology is moving out of the labs and into products, the synergy between the numerous companies and the academic labs is high. From the conversations I heard at the Colorado Robotics Association, robotics is also going to make a lot of people a lot of money. So, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Robotics.

Where’s your robot?  Ours are being built by Gamma Two Robotics here in Colorado

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