October 4, 2016

What are the two ways to best develop robotics?

BY :     October 4, 2016

We have reached a point where some are having difficulty coping with game-changing technologies that are presumably contributing to progress. Such progress can be difficult to perceive if you are not directly benefiting from it.

In a previous article I discussed the ability of social robotics to make a positive impact on our society. This article provides an optimistic vision of the opportunity for this technology to include the general public in its development. Doing so would reduce the risk of surprising people with another new technology they never saw coming.

Indeed, instead of the fog through which we are presently navigating, new ways of launching technological projects allow coming up with a more inclusive future for society.

The issue:

Digital is growing so fast that even professionals struggle adjusting to it. Even so, adoption of new technology has never been so high. It took only 10 years for smartphones to penetrate 40% of US households, when the telephone itself needed 64 years to do so!

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No wonder why people who are reluctant to join the trend can sometimes feel quickly left behind.

Robotics, as discussed in a previous article, brings together many fears of digital technology and automation. When looking at the speed at which a new technology can penetrate domestic markets, and the fear associated with robotics, we can easily understand why people would rather hamper this development.

If such fears are misplaced as we are told, how could we make sure they truly are?

The new production modes:

New ways of developing products have emerged. They find their source in an economical equation that is difficult to solve and could have interesting social repercussions. Western markets and their low economic growth forecasts continually strive to increase production. It can be explained by several reasons, one of them being that customers are flooded with novelties on a daily basis, and their purchasing power doesn’t grow as fast as their parents’. Therefore, they demand the same quality of products than before but cheaper and cheaper, leaving very few room for margins.

Innovation had to adjust; it went from being closed and in-house for the most part, to opening itself to the outside world, thus becoming an open innovation. Doing so, companies aim to leverage new competitive situations to obtain quality gains while reducing waste and lowering capital expenditures.

Outside pathways to the market create opportunities to identify people, start-ups, or even ideas and projects that could be highly valuable to a high tech company.

Everyone is interested in having outside input contribute to shaping their product. And this openness sometimes goes as far as consulting the future customer. Brutal and costly deception if the innovation is rejected can be avoided this way.

This is very common in small businesses that have adopted the model inspired by Lean Start-up; many large corporations also work in close collaboration with their customers. All share this basic idea that the closer you are to your customer in the early stages of your project, the better chance of developing a valuable product while maintaining room for investment. This is the Jugaad Innovation, a very frugal and flexible approach towards innovation.

Of course, disclosing an idea or product early might seem disturbing at first. But since everything is already a race to the market, why not get there first? As everyone else, you then have to keep up with the pace.

A perfect robotic example is DuctBot, an Indian robotic solution designed to clean air-conditioner ducts from inside. An unenviable task that used to be done by children or humans small enough to fit in the ducts. Its creator, Fahad Azad through his company Robosoft Systems, started the project in 2005, while at university. He won an international robotic competition in 2006 that enabled EPSCO, a Dubai-based company specialized in improving indoor air quality, to read about his success and become his first client. Mr. Azad kept close to his users and invoked very common solutions to design his robot in order to make it accessible to Indian workers. In 2011, Mr. Azad was selected by the MIT TR35 annual competition. He had built a solution five times cheaper than what was available on the global market, and made it suitable for the Indian market. Among his clients were the Indian Navy and Blue Star, a leading air-con maker.

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It is obviously very interesting to consult the end-user, keeping him informed and engaged at the beginning of new innovative products.

Robotics could benefit a lot from such new production approaches. Robots remain very expensive, especially for the general consumer. Companies should be looking at those new processes as opportunities to kill two birds with one stone: lower prices and facilitate adoption among the general population.

The new funding options:

Another interesting very early stage financing method for innovative projects is crowdfunding: sites like kisskissbankbank, kickstarter, indiegogo, etc. enable everyone to participate in funding a project. These platforms provide internet users with the ability to decide whether or not they want to back a project/product. Usually, the expected investment ticket is very affordable; everyone can contribute and play a role in both financing and communicating over an initiative they appreciate.

The social robot Jibo raised $3.7 million thanks to 7, 419 backers. An almost unrealistic opportunity to raise both cash and future consumers at the same time. People even say it could be too much pressure, putting Jibo Inc. at risk if they aren’t able to fulfill consumer expectations.

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Jibo was the first of a series of crowdfundings for social robots: Buddy, Robit, Alpha2, Aido. Social robot makers seem to be pleased by this funding option, let’s hope the consumers will be too.

New production methods count on the customer to fund innovations by backing the projects he wants to succeed. This is a way for robotics companies to develop a more lucrative product by gaining early market shares, while conserving the highest latitude of investment and making sure they are awaited to deliver.

Another one lies in DIY:

The “Do It Yourself” trend is soaring and being encouraged thanks to several factors. One being the appearance of places set up to accommodate designers of new products such as robots. These spaces offer them an access to manufacturing tools and knowledge they could not afford on their own.

The best-known concept being Fab Labs, invented at the end of the 90’s by MIT. These spaces have now developed in cities around the world and many high tech projects can start and even be lead toward pre-production.

Many of these projects aim at using new technologies to solve issues touching our daily lives.

For instance, the Cherry project began in a competition called “Défi H” organized by Sogeti France. It aims to help hospitalized children maintain social contact while hospitalized thanks to a robotic companion. This project was designed by students from an engineering school called ENSEIRB-MATMECA, in order to be profitable to a volunteer association: Prima.

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After the competition in which it received two prizes, the association leading the project decided to work within the FabLab EIRLAB in Bordeaux at ENSEIRB-MATMECA, to continue the prototyping phase.

This project is a direct answer to a fundamental issue pointed out by the association of volunteers. It is also a demonstration of how people can organize themselves to enable a non-profit organization to lead an R&D project.

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Another example of an interesting use of these spaces is Nicolas Huchet. Mr. Huchet is a worker who lost his right arm and couldn’t get a suitable prosthetic because it was too expensive. Nicolas then created a prototype of a robotic arm for €1000 compared to the €70,000 a similar product would cost. Since then, he created the association My Human Kit to promote collective endeavors used to solve issues faced by disabled people.

This is an opportunity to discuss handicap issues and work at offering social consideration and concrete solutions to those affected.

Some inventions can be directly lead by innovators in very well equipped areas. These places promote collective intelligence and contributions help building solutions that can have a real impact on day-to-day lives.

In doing so, such projects serve two purposes: leading progress in our societies and focusing it on emerging technologies and on the current issues to be solved. In such a configuration, robotics shouldn’t be seen as a threat but a means of social inclusion.

Moreover, such decentralized methods to build robots would ensure a decentralization in robotics knowledge. This decentralization would be a guarantee against any monopoly on robotics abilities. This would reduce a potential risk which some actors like Elon Musk already decided to fight against through Open AI project.

Conclusion:

To best develop robotic technologies, it is essential to closely concur with the future consumers.

These same consumers can actually reach a point where they can create robots themselves.

There are still efforts to be made in order to build the social robots we can still only dream about. It would be useful to carry out such efforts alongside the future consumer in order to sensitize and improve robots them at the same time.

These initiatives could lead to much more inclusive projects like the ones seen in this article, that make progress through technology much more tangible.

The social robots don’t have to be nice but fulfill a nice objective. This could be achieved thanks to the new production approaches previously discussed and in doing so, this might:

  • Spread awareness of robotics among the general public;
  • Prevent fear of new tools by having them contribute to their creation;
  • Include people in the product definition and robotics development.

Robotics is an opportunity for production and societies if it rises alongside humans it will accompany tomorrow.

Maximilien Oberlis

About

Maximilien joined the group in 2013 after graduating from a master in engineering with a specialization in Telecommunications. He first intervened as an R&D Developer on video processing and AR dedicated to mobile platforms. After showing skills with innovation and projects financing, he operated successively in pre-sales and consulting in data or mobility strategy. He also proved to be an efficient coach twice for two different teams participating in the “Defi H” competition. All along the way, he has been responsible for an innovative projects portfolio, partnerships with R&D actors such as computer science laboratories and engineering schools in Aquitaine, France.

More on Maximilien Oberlis.

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  1. Jacques · October 5, 2016 Reply

    Great post Maximilien. From “defih contest” to “building a Social Robot”. that’s the way we can use the bots effects and take benefits of this new kind of relationship.

*Opinions expressed on this blog reflect the writer’s views and not the position of the Sogeti Group