Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Daniela Rus from MIT's CSAIL talks about pervasive robotics in society. From left, Scott Eckert, Phil Libin, and David Lane look on.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

We had a jam-packed room from start to finish to see the future of robotics and A.I.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Kiva Systems co-founder Mick Mountz (right) chats with Rethink Robotics CEO Scott Eckert.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Dan Kara of ABI Research kicks things off with what's hot in robotics: manufacturing, warehousing, collaborating, exoskeletons, and more.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Colin Angle of iRobot meets with a team from FIRST Robotics.

Image: Richard Freierman

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Soft Robotics CEO Carl Vause chats with other attendees.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Harvard University's Conor Walsh dazzles the audience with soft exosuits and other wearable robots.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Plenty of time for networking before, during, and after the program.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

The demo areas were packed all day long.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Jennifer Wheler from Novartis wants to hear about medical applications of robotics and A.I.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

David Mindell of Humatics (left) chats with MIT's Victor McElheny (center) and Wade Roush.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

New wave of startups, from left: Humatics' David Mindell, RightHand Robotics' Leif Jentoft, Soft Robotics' Carl Vause, Jibo's Matt Revis, and MassRobotics' Tom Ryden.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Joyce Sidopoulos (left) of MassTLC chats with Rachel Emsley from Finnegan.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Colin Angle from iRobot takes questions after his talk on the smart home of the future.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

We start 'em young at Xconomy events.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Helen Greiner of CyPhy Works talks about drone-company strategy with MIT's Wade Roush.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

The networking space was bright and open, next to a rooftop garden.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Joe Jones of Franklin Robotics demos a home-gardening robot.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Panel moderators kept things interactive, going to the audience for questions early and often.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

The demo tables, including this one from UMass Lowell, were busy all day.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Jana Eggers from Nara Logics says Google's AlphaGo result is significant for businesses. Roger Matus (left) and Rohit Gupta look on.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

A question from the audience about the perception and ethics of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Attendees had to go get their own drinks. No Kiva bots serving refreshments this time.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Talla's Rob May: Donald Trump would say he'll "make A.I. great." Roger Matus and Jana Eggers hope not.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

We had lots of great questions from the audience on everything from robotics business models to the competitive landscape in A.I.

Photo by Keith Spiro Photography

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion

Our second annual robotics event in Boston was a huge success—and a lot of fun. It covered a vast amount of ground: not just the latest advances in robot technologies and businesses, but also the rise of artificial intelligence in tech companies and the mainstream vernacular.

Big thanks to Google, our hosts, for providing a fantastic space and top-notch support. And thanks to our event sponsors: our platinum sponsor, U.K. Trade & Investment; gold sponsors Cirtronics, Harmonic Drive, iRobot, and Mintz Levin; and silver sponsor BDO.

Special thanks to Keith Spiro Photography for the photos. And of course a huge thank-you to our speakers and attendees, who made the event memorable from beginning to end—see the slideshow above.

Now, on to a few takeaways (and speaker attributions), while they’re fresh in my head:

1. Don’t call it A.I. First of all, no one agrees on what the term means anymore. Second, it’s more useful and accessible to talk about what problems can be solved, rather than use technical labels that can alienate or confuse users. What’s important is that a machine can make recommendations or avoid obstacles, not that it uses deep learning. (Rob May of Talla and Roger Matus of Neurala.)

2. Call it a “pervasive” rewrite of all tech products. Robotics and A.I.-based technologies are getting to the point where they are everywhere—in our devices, cars, homes, and offices. Smart investors, entrepreneurs, and researchers are exploring ways to create new markets for services that help people interact and collaborate better with machines. (Phil Libin of General Catalyst, Daniela Rus of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and David Mindell of Humatics.)

3. When the key problems shift from technology to design, the time is right. Conversational interfaces like Alexa and Siri hint at a new wave of growth, as people figure out new use cases and business models for machines—maybe akin to the iPhone’s debut in 2007. At the same time, more and more physical robot technologies are becoming “good enough.” (Scott Eckert of Rethink Robotics, Matt Revis of Jibo, and Phil Libin.)

4. It’s the data, not the algorithms, that hold the power. We’ve heard that line ever since “big data” was the buzzword. But the message remains the same. Whoever owns the data—think Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix—has the ability to capitalize on that data. That means startups have to be extra careful where they choose to compete and on what types of data. (Jana Eggers of Nara Logics and Roger Matus—though Sentenai’s Rohit Gupta might challenge the premise.)

5. Selling robots is still a challenge—but new opportunities await. Smart homes of the future will need a robot to run them. Drones need better software and services. Biomedicine and rehab are still open markets. Robotics is a tough, competitive business, but startups and big companies alike are finding increasingly specific problems to solve as the technologies continue to improve. (Colin Angle of iRobot, Helen Greiner from CyPhy Works, and Conor Walsh from Harvard University’s Biodesign Lab.)

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com.