Rod Brooks, Chris Anderson, Aldo Zini to Star at SRI Robotics Event

2/20/13Follow @wroush

A couple of weeks ago we opened ticket sales for our second annual Silicon Valley robotics forum. It’s called Robots Remake the Workplace. But we could have just as easily called this April 11 event When Bad Things Happen to Good Robots. That’s because the national media is practically blowing a gasket over a freshly perceived robotic threat, fanned by news organizations like 60 Minutes, The Economist, the Associated Press, Wired, and The New York Times.

The meme spreading through the media, stoked by a handful of academics, is that robots are hurting the economy by taking away jobs that could be going to humans. At our event, which is part of National Robotics Week, we’ll attempt to recalibrate that narrative by showcasing companies that are changing the game inside workplaces—not by eliminating jobs, but by making whole organizations more productive.

Today we’re sharing the agenda for the conference, which you can find in its entirety here. As in 2012, the event will be at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA, home to the technology behind the Da Vinci surgical robot and many other robotics advances. Attendees will be welcomed by SRI president and CEO Curt Carlson.

Our first keynote speaker will be Rod Brooks, founder and chief technology officer at Rethink Robotics in Boston. Brooks was one of the roboticists 60 Minutes interviewed for its critical skeptical Jan. 13 segment “March of the Machines.” While he tried to make the point that robots like Rethink’s Baxter manipulator arm could make it economically feasible to bring more manufacturing back to American shores—thus creating jobs—little of that made it into the broadcast report. On April 11 we’ll give him more time to explain what Rethink is really up to.

That’ll be followed by a session engaging the jobs question directly. With help from SRI robotics director Rich Mahoney and others, we’ll look at arguments—offered by scholars such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McCaffee of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, among others—that technological change is leaving many workers behind, and try to suss out what part of this phenomenon, if any, can be attributed to robotics.

Aldo Zini from Pittsburgh-based Aethon will be our next keynote presenter. Aethon builds the TUG, a mobile robot that ferries medicines and other supplies around hospitals. That lets nurses and pharmacy technicians concentrate on more demanding tasks—like actually taking care of patients.

The Kubi remote-control iPad stand from Revolve Robotics

The Kubi remote-control iPad stand from Revolve Robotics.

Next we’ll have a fun panel discussion looking at how telepresence robots are changing the way we communicate in our offices and homes. Our panelists will include David Cann from Double Robotics, which is literally building “wheels for your iPad” (think a stripped-down Segway with a tablet atop an adjustable-length pole); Keller Rinaudo from Romotive, a crowdfunded Las Vegas startup that’s building a mobile base for your iPhone; and Marcus Rosenthal from Revolve Robotics, which is building Kubi, a remotely controlled desktop stand for the iPad. (We would have called this session iRobot, but it seems that’s already taken.)

After a networking break, we’ll hear from former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who took the helm last year at San Diego-based 3D Robotics. The company sells kits for DIY drone helicopters and other robotic aerial vehicles, and Anderson will be on hand to talk about the maker revolution—the subject of his latest book—and the implications of the DIY robotics movement for entrepreneurship.

A fun catch-all panel will follow, with CEOs from three companies developing robots for unusual types of workplaces such as greenhouses and solar energy installations. John Kawola from Harvest Automation, outside Boston, will talk about his company’s container-handling robots, which can help human workers space, re-space, and consolidate shrubs and other plants in nurseries and hoop houses. Wasiq Bokhari will tell the audience about Qbotix, whose robots travel on looping tracks at solar-energy farms to keep panels pointed at the sun. And we expect to add a couple more interesting companies to this mix.

A special joint presentation from iRobot and InTouch Health will be next. The companies are collaborating to build mobile telepresence systems for hospitals and medical clinics, including RP-VITA, a human-sized robot that allows doctors and other specialists to roam hospital halls and coordinate patient care even though they might be stationed thousands of miles away. InTouch Health CEO Yulun Wang will demonstrate the system with help from an iRobot executive.

Where’s all the money to support these robotics advances coming from? From customers, partly (yes, there is real revenue in the robotics industry). And, of course, from venture investors. We’ll close out the afternoon forum with a conversation with two of the Silicon Valley venture investors who are most gung-ho about robotics: Ajay Agarwal from the Palo Alto office of Bain Capital Ventures (which invested in Kiva Systems) and Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (which has invested in Rethink Robotics and SpaceX, among other robotics companies).

Overall, we’re planning an informative and entertaining afternoon that you won’t want to miss if you care about the robotics business. Buy your ticket to Robots Remake the Workplace before this Thursday to take advantage of our “early bot” rate.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

  • John

    Robotics is obviously destroying jobs. You have to be roboticist to not see it.