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A vision decades in the making

Florian Pestoni

In the last couple of years, it seems that robots have jumped from science fiction to reality and are on their way to becoming commonplace. This process continues to accelerate, driven by macro-economic trends such as labor shortage and advancements in technology.

But as I like to say, it usually takes years of preparation to become an overnight sensation. In the case of robotics, it has taken decades of contributions from people around the world, from scientists to entrepreneurs and investors.

The InOrbit team got together for an all hands a few weeks ago to do the groundwork for our next major milestone. We’ve adopted the practice of giving each of these big stakes in the ground a codename based on some of the greatest inventors and scientists. We are just now wrapping up Rita, which was named after Rita Levi-Montalcini.

For the next one, we are honoring Nils Nilsson. A computer scientist who was one of the founding fathers of robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. He passed away in April, 2019.

Nilsson worked at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) for over 20 years starting in the early ‘60s at the Artificial Intelligence Center. He then joined Stanford as chair of the Department of Computer Science. Amongst his many contributions was “SHAKEY”, one of the first autonomous mobile robots, as well as several algorithms that are the predecessors of current robotics algorithms.

As it turns out, I’ll be at SRI today as part of The Rise of the Robots, a Japan and US Robotics conference organized by Silicon Valley Robotics. I will get to pitch InOrbit to an international audience of roboticists and investors.

I have recently had the honor of being introduced to another visionary and unsung hero of the robotics revolution. In this case, it was Buck Ward who 30 years ago envisioned using robots to clean floors, relieving workers from the repetitive tasks and offering improved reliability to his customers.

I was so inspired by connecting with one of the early pioneers in the space of autonomous robots and learning about his journey. Reality is only now catching up with his vision. I was struck by this article from the LA Times 22 years ago. The discussion and some of the quotes are as relevant today as they were then.

“I recognized a long time ago that the cleaning industry is the same as it’s been for the last 1,000 years,” he said. “Most of the work is done with a rag and some elbow grease. . . . The entire computer industry has pretty much bypassed the cleaning industry.”

However, it is only now that the technology has matured and the cost has come down sufficiently to make this not just economically viable but practically unavoidable. Cyberclean Systems, the company that Buck started all those decades ago, is now growing rapidly in a RaaS (robots as a service) model powered by autonomous floor-cleaning robots from different vendors.

Lastly, at a personal level, my wife’s father passed away yesterday. Although he was not directly involved in robotics, he spent his whole life doing what he loved best: decoding the inner workings of the human brain. As a scientist, he published too many books to list here, trained many leading international researchers and pioneered computer-based language analysis techniques.

It is at times like this that we re-discover that we truly stand on the shoulders of giants. To help advance the state of the art in robotics, we are forming the Robot Operations Working Group or ROWG. The purpose of this cross-industry group will be sharing and developing best practices for the operation at scale of autonomous robots. If you’re interested, please find additional details and sign up at