Tuesday, September 4, 2012

I want more Life!

Computers have obviously been a fantastic tool in improving productivity. We can make financial calculations will blazing speed, have access to the world's knowledge with a few key strokes. We live in a wonderful time.

One thing that computers are not good at is helping make people more productive in the physical world. There are many productivity 'leaks' everyday. These productivity leaks are numerous and what they leak away is more precious than gold or even Apple stock.  Here are a few:

An incomplete list of Time Leaks in human life in no particular order of importance. 

  1. Household chores
    1. Doing the dishes
    2. Vacuuming
    3. Organizing the home
    4. Cleaning vertical and horizontal surfaces
    5. Taking out the trash
    6. Weeding the garden
    7. Changing bed sheets
    8. Doing laundry
    9. Home maintenance (painting, minor plumbing repair)
    10. Re-arranging furniture (especially heavy furniture).
    11. Cooking wholesome food 
      1. Kitchen prep work: cutting veggies and fruit, washing meet etc
      2. Actually cooking to a recipe 
  2. Factory world
    1. Transport of material for production
    2. Disposal of waste
    3. Repetitive tasks with non-uniform parts
    4. Repetitive tasks requiring a high degree of dexterity
    5. Moving heavy items into place
    6. Joining items
    7. Cleaning, lapping and finishing parts
    8. Packing variable sized items to minimize shipping charges. 
  3. Office world
    1. Physically moving books and binders
    2. Making coffee and cookies of guests
    3. Picking up the bosses dry cleaning (see 4 below)
  4. Store world
    1. Stocking shelves
    2. Keeping track of inventory and losses
    3. Telling customers buying clothes:  "you look fabulous!" 
    4. Assisting customers in finding the right "thingy" 
    5. Unloading trucks
    6. Pricing merchandise. 
    7. Re-ordering the store (putting misplaced items back in their rightful places). 
    8. Demonstrating how things work (toys, electronics, etc.) 
  5. Tasks involving driving
    1. Picking up and dropping off kids from school
    2. Going shopping 
    3. Driving to work in busy traffic
    4. Picking laundry and dry cleaning 
  6. On a personal level
    1. bathing an infirmed relative
    2. Assisting someones mobility

Obviously this is a partial list.  But, much of what is on this... no... all of what is on this list can be addressed robotically. However, sadly, roboticist do not follow a monolithic vision.  Roboticists are usually firmly in one of two camps on how to go about this. 

Camp 1: Many useful, special purpose robots 

Camp 1 is inhabited by sensible people who know how hard it is to build a "universal robot." These people have realized how difficult it is to make a robot do the simplest task,  just picking up a dish, and washing it is really difficult.  Well, getting a robot to see the dish is the first problem. Getting it to angle a gripper to at a proper grasp point is the next problem. Regrasping the dish, it the final problem... before we get started with the actual task. 

Besides, robots that are capable would be really, really expensive and out of reach, price wise, for most people. The most expensive appliances run about $1000-$2000 tops for the average middle class appliance. How would we get someone to spend 10x or perhaps 1000x that much money on an "appliance"? It's absurd. 

Camp 2: One Universal Robot

Camp 2 is inhabited by people who hope to build a universal robot that can do all of the above and more. Each task might be an "app." (App is not an analogy I embrace because apps run independently of each other with no coordination and are launched by the user, not autonomously).

This camp argues that a universal robot will be like a universal computer, i.e. like your desk top or lap top it can run any code. With a proper Operating System, this robot will be able to perform any task possible.


In the short term, camp 1 guys will win out. Indeed, they are already winning out. iRobot has a much greater sales volume in the appliance world than, say Aldebaran. And the iRobot products actually do useful things. 

But here is what I am afraid of. I am afraid that to address all of the chores above, we will need perhaps dozens of these single purpose robots.  That will lead to an ever escalating problem of maintenance of said robots... changing batteries, interacting with them, each with a unique user interface.  Then, the constant stream of upgrading appliances. The effort of dozens of companies designing robots with unique or overlapping niches. It will become a mess.  Don't get me going about how I am going to keep 30 items charged every day!

Camp 2  is an elegant solution. What!? No realist would claim that, surely. But hear me out.

One robot that does it all. That gives the consumer one point of interaction. One item to get fixed if it breaks. One model to upgrade. One user manual to read.  Further, the device can expand beyond a set of well defined niche tasks and can evolve.

Programmers will work on one robot. They will share their code synergistically.  Instead of fractured disconnected efforts, there will be one code base that interacts seamlessly.

What about the cost? 

Well, the question is not really about cost, is it? How much do you spend on your mortgage? On your car payment? Throw in utilities, insurance, and maintenance and those two bills account for about 1/2 of many people's take home pay. 

While I am not here to give financial advice, it is clear that people will pay a significant amount of their income to buy things  they need.

But what a universal robot can offer is a unique kind of value. A robot offers you Time. The most precious thing you have. More value that all the riches, is an extra day of life.  You have N days left in your life. In some actuary manual or written in some scroll in someone's religion, there is a day. And that is the day you will die. 

The question, then, is, how much is it worth to you to have say 20%-30% maybe even more life?  How much would it be worth to you to spend  that time with your friends and family? Traveling? Meeting new people?  Doing the things that you enjoy doing? Writing that novel that you have always wanted? How much is that worth to you each month? What would an extra 1000 hours a year be worth to you? 

If that value proposition can be refined and made real, I predict that people will pay a lot for a robot. A huge portion of their take home pay.  They will get that robot by any means possible be it by saving, by financing,  or by leasing.

Nearly everyone will realize at some point that their days are numbered. That is the day that a robot that can do "all of the above" can help out and come to the rescue and give you back more of the only thing there isn't too much of: Time.

Perhaps later I will write about how to methodically spec out the above Universal Robot, coordinate a group of really cleaver people, and get it done.


Friday, August 17, 2012

The cost-function roadmap of intelligent machines

The idea of a Universal robot has been around for at least 10,000  years where legend has it that a Chinese inventor created the worlds first walking talking humanoid.

Leonardo di Vinci even got into the act imagining and prototyping a robotic soldier. The dream of a servant with the intelligence of a human being, but where the owner has no moral obligation to the creature, is appealing.  Being born and raised in the US,  I was not raised with servants around the house, picking up clothes after me, preparing my meals and so on. If I had the means to hire such a servant, I would not feel comfortable.

I would accept a robotic servant, if it could do the things I needed and not get in the way.
To build such a servant there is a key conundrum that must be addressed. It is not technical. It is a business problem. I call this conundrum the Cost-Function roadmap.

What is the idea behind this road map? I can say with 90% certainty that we could build a universal robot for a billion dollars or so.  A billion dollars is a government scale project  or at least that of a company the size of a small government.  

It is obvious that if we did have such a robot, we could improve  productivity in America dramatically. The impact on productivity in the workspace and at home would be measured not in the billions of dollars but in the trillions of dollars in the US alone.

It is well worth doing. People feel it in the bones, but so far investors and the government are only willing to throw some loose change in the direction of small project of this sort. No one is ready for the moon shot.

That is the reality that we live in today. To harmonize this dream with the needs of the stake holders (i.e. investors and the eventual end users) we need to develop a road map. This road map would establish a string of products that would be organized as a ladder of capability. At each rung of the ladder, the product must have a value that exceeds it cost to the consumer.  So far,  with a nod  to iRobot (who's director of communication Mathew Lloyd recently gave me a left handed compliment about  my newest work... but hey, I have a thick skin).... I think we have not reached even rung one of that ladder in the consumer space.

What? ! What about the millions of robotic vacuum cleaners and RoboSapiens that have been sold?!  In a previous post, I talked about "crossing the chasm" or moving from early adopters of technology to the early majority... that is building a product that a practical mom or dad would buy, not just something of interest to gadget freaks or robot lovers. Or divorced dads wanting to buy the next cool toy for their kid that they see every other week.

No, I am talking about devices that outcompete the competitors for the big markets.  Consumer robotics is not there yet.

The hardest nut to crack in robotics is not the technology itself. It is to identify and build that ladder of technology rung by rung until we reach the Universal Robot. Obama is not going to fund a billion dollar project to get there.... at least not in the consumer space.

My hope is that companies like RethinkRobotics which is focusing on the manufacturing space, may be developing some super secret technology that will spill over into the consumer space.

I also think that as the era of the PC is ending we may start to ascend the ladder.   Who wants to sit in front of a computer ? The computer is used at home primarily for social purposes not work. It no longer needs to be a high tech imitation of a typewriter.  The computer is an aberrant and unnatural form for social communication. New technology will replace it.  The telephone has already morphed into an instrument of social media, the smart phone. Obviously the TV is next. After that the kitchen (the soul of any home) will transform into a social center. And the computer will fad away.

As the era of the PC ends, I predict that  we will finally begin to climb the ladder to the universal robot.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Crossing the Chasm: will consumer robotics ever do it in my lifetime?

When will a consumer robot cross the chasm?

 What will be the first consumer robot application to bridge the chasm between early adopter and the early majority?

This, I believe, is the central question this consumer robotics must answer. Crossing the chasm means selling a product not just to enthusiasts, but to the early majority. I submit for your consideration that consumer robotics has NOT been able to jump the chasm yet, and the whole industry is stuck, and is of no real interest to major companies like Google, MS, Apple etc... those with companies with huge stacks of money and who have to power to transform this market. While MS has shown leadership in this area, it is the sole standout in the crowd.  See the article by BG : A robot in every home.

What could that first product be that jumps the chasm? There are so many possible areas where consumer robotics can grow. Obviously any new field must be technically in reach within say, several  years, it must address a pressing need. So, will it be Telepresence? Security? Intelligent toys? Elder care? Maybe even a nannybot? Or the famous "get me a beer robot" (and is the 'get me the beer robot' an expression of complete lack of imagination in the publics mind as to what robots can do for us).

Military robotics, lead mostly by iRobot, has been  able to bridge the chasm, and now we see the widespread use of robots in the military and police forces. Lego Mindstorms, may have done it (or is in the process of doing it) with education/hobbyist robots. Intuitive surgical has transformed surgery. What is wrong with consumer robotics? Why should anyone be enthusiastic about it as a business opportunity?

Here is some background to the crossing the chasm problem: "Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers", Geoffrey A. Moore

Here is what I think is standing in the way.  We are stuck with the notion that consumers will not pay more than X dollars for a robot. People are focused on that X number because there is a lot of data to support the idea that $100.00 for an entertainment robot is the max and around $300.00 for a utility robot is a maximum people will pay.

Yet, people also have cars, which cost a lot more. Why? Because they deliver something of unique value to the consumer. People will also pay a few hundred a month for cable. Why? Because there is a constantly renewing source of entertainment.  TV is part of our culture.

What we need to think about is delivering VALUE to the consumer and let the price fall where it may.  What is the pain that consumers undergo that a consumer robot can alleviate? 

The first step, I think, in performing a methodical analysis of this question is compile a pain-list of consumer activities. 

Then, the second step is to determine the technical readiness of robotic technology to address each of these pains.

It is only through a methodical analysis of this problem are we going to get anywhere. Building stuff and seeing what sticks has not gotten us very fare.  Just my 2 cents.