First and foremost Important: I finally made it to Delta Silver Medallion for 2024, courtesy of last week’s trip back to the Bay. Like most of you, I got wanderlust during the lockdown years and couldn’t wait to get back on the road. Suddenly I’m back to pre-pandemic working levels of travel, which is both amazing and a complete shock to the system.
On Sunday I head back to JFK for my first trip to Detroit. I dream of a week where I have time to go to the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and a Tigers game, but I expect very little free time around Automate. ProMat was such a great success for myself and Actuator two months ago that it seemed like a good idea.
I’ve barely had time to plan my show, but I’ve come to appreciate how a good show serves as a great crash course to certain corners of the world. I entered ProMat with quite a bit of knowledge about the robotics industry and came out with an insight from the client side: something that speaks primarily to startups and investors is not always affordable.
Last week’s issue led with two exclusive interviews, which didn’t give me much time to discuss what I was up to in the South Bay. That was probably for the best, given that the week before was heavily focused on Google. We’ve got some of that in this week’s edition too, so I hope you enjoyed that temporary hiatus. We all knew it wouldn’t last.
I also cleared some non-Google time during the week. On Thursday, I caught up with some old friends for an A’s game at the depressingly abandoned Oakland Coliseum (Fisher is selling the team) and spent part of the weekend away from technology in Santa Cruz. Technology is all well and good, but sometimes you just have to stare into the ocean and carefully rethink your life choices, with short timeouts to play the new Zelda game.
I also took three meetings in the South Bay. The first was a visit to InOrbit’s store in downtown Mountain View. The startup is one of several in the Bay Area founded by a former Willow Garage employee. It’s a clever bit of real-world viral advertising on the main thoroughfare, Castro Street, which was converted into a pedestrian walkway during the pandemic. From the outside, the space looks like a standard storefront you’d find in the neighborhood, aside from all the robots walking down the street.
I had walked past it in February when I was in town for a Toyota Research Institute campus visit. Like everyone else, I wondered what was going on inside, but it was late, the store was closed, and I was desperate for somewhere to eat. My first suspicion was that it was some kind of center for STEM education. There were plenty of kid-friendly context clues pointing in that direction.
The whole thing is basically one big advertisement for a cloud robotics management platform. The “shop” is actually a space that industrial robots move around in, similar to what they would do in a warehouse environment. The company has several shelves of merchandise, and when someone buys a product online from the Square store, the robot goes there to pick it up. Meanwhile, you’ll get a feel for InOrbit’s interface and a good sense of how the system handles interoperability — in this case, a few different robots from different manufacturers living together in a small space.
Co-founder and CEO, Florian Pestoni, says:
We held an event here that involved a lot of the robotics community. It was invitation only, but this is downtown, so people saw the activity, they wanted to come in, so we took turns being the bounce. At one point one of the people tried to get in and we were like ‘sorry, private event’. He asks what we are doing. We tell him we’re orchestrating robots and he’s like, “oh, I work at NASA Ames and I’m a roboticist.” My opinion is: even the gatecrashers are robotics.
Then I headed north to the 45,000-square-foot PlayStation campus in San Mateo to meet with US Director of the Sony Innovation Fund, Austin Noronha. The company was a major investor in Agility, but I hadn’t spoken to anyone there since Digit made the rounds several CESs ago promoting a Ford deal that currently appears to be dead in the water thanks to the twist from the robot to the warehouse sector.
The fund also invested in Rapyuta Robotics, an ETH Zurich spin-out that, like InOrbit, builds cloud robotics management solutions. It also supported Embodied, the company behind children’s robot Moxie, and Botrista, which makes the drink kiosk system DrinkBot.
The corporate venture angle is always interesting. We talked a little bit about fellow agility investor, Amazon’s Industrial Innovation Fund, which is seen as an effective solution scouting system that it could one day incorporate into its own workflows. Acquisitions are also apparently on the table, although the company has been much less candid about them.
So, what does Sony have to gain from all this? By Noronha:
In addition to the capital we’re bringing in now — early and late stage — we’re all internally deep into the Sony ecosystem, so all the BUs are very well connected. We have the credibility, the reach of these business units, even though they’re busy. Any of the portfolio companies that have an interest and are ready, we’ll bring them into the BUs and help them…. Could be manufacturing. On the fintech side, we have a company called Arkose Labs, which is authentication. PlayStation has adopted them, which is hugely important to the company.
I spent much of Friday morning at Figure’s headquarters in Sunnyvale. It is an inconspicuous office building located between the office parks. There is no signage on the outside yet due to various ordinances that need to be followed. Inside there is a large robot cage that looks like a warehouse. That area has remained unused so far – that’s largely because the company only celebrates its first anniversary this Saturday.
To commemorate the occasion, the fledgling startup is pushing to get the humanoid robot from Figure 01 up and running before then. I recommend watching the full piece, and not just because I wrote it (mostly that, but not quite). It’s a fascinating and ambitious company in a hot but largely unproven category.
“We’re eager to build this out for the big game,” founder Brett Adcock told me. “The next 20 or 30 years. That would start here, do basic things in the world, and then do more things from there via an over-the-air software update. So can load a truck. This may involve palletizing and replenishing shelves and cleaning floors. Then eventually it can go into manufacturing to retail, and over time, maybe 15 years from now, it can take care of the elderly and do things that are important.
One of their main competitors, Sanctuary AI, unveiled its own humanoid this week. The 5’7″, 155lb Phoenix can lift 55lb. It’s set to follow previous generations with some real-world pilots.
“We designed Phoenix to be the most sensor-rich and physically capable humanoid ever built and to enable Carbon’s burgeoning intelligence to perform the broadest range of work tasks possible,” said co-founder and CEO Geordie Rose in a statement. prepared statement. “We envision a future where general purpose robots are as ubiquitous as cars and help people do work that needs to be done, in cases where there simply aren’t enough people to do that work.”
As for the Google thing I alluded to at the top, this was a big week for Alphabet X graduate, Intrinsic, which just launched Flowstate. The platform is designed to help non-robotics build workflows and iterate systems.
“Our first product is a solution builder,” CEO Wendy Tan White told me. “With Intrinsic Flowstate, we say you can design, build and deploy it. We are well aware that the world is still in its infancy with the skills available. They can be put together in this workflow that we offer. We are also going to allow (third party) skills to be available. We want the wider ecosystem to get involved. One of the benefits of leaving Alphabet is some of the more advanced skills like vision and force feedback where you need some machine learning or even deep reinforcement learning. We were also able to create some of those skills. What you will find in Flowstate is not just the solution builder itself, but a library of skills, some of which do not exist or are not easily accessible today.”
We also take a closer look at how the company was impacted by layoffs and restructuring, and how the relatively recently acquired Open Robotics plays a role in this.
“What we’ve done with the acquisition is that the core technical team that used to work under OSRF (Open Source Robotics Foundation) is now working at Intrinsic,” said Brian Gerkey, the CEO of Open Robotics who is now the president of Open Robotics. at Intrinsic. “You have to see Intrinsic as perhaps one of the most important, but really just one player within the ROS ecosystem. We happen to employ a number of engineers and we are committed to supporting them in their development and contributing to the ROS community.”
Speaking of shakeups, things are looking a little less rosy at Amazon’s consumer robotics division. As the company’s proposed acquisition of iRobot remains in amber hold due to all regulatory scrutiny, consumer electronics VP Ken Washington marks his last day as we speakleaving to “pursue an outside opportunity.”
I have met the former CTO of Ford several times over the years. He has been a strong supporter of consumer robotics in general and Astro in particular. The news comes after reports that the company is looking to upgrade the robot with generative AI features that would boost the conversational skills of a system that currently communicates like R2-D2.
Washington noted during our conversation on Re:Mars last year:
We were really thinking about what would be true in robotics in the next 5 to 10 years. Will there be a robot in every house? We thought so, so we had to work on that. No one had done it before. People had tried, but they couldn’t get the price or the functionality right, so we knew we had to invent a lot to get the economics and the functionality right. Integration with Alexa has just become a matter of course.
Amazon, meanwhile, insists it remains committed to the little robot.
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