By all signs over the years, Aldebaran has been a prosperous company, gaining a firm foothold in the academic spheres in social HRI. Just look at how many different research labs across the globe have been adopting the Nao as the “go to” platform for their scientific endeavours. By all measures, Nao is a well suited platform for a broad range of social HRI and Cognitive Science research. Furthermore, they haven’t been doing a bad job at having a stab at bringing social robots to potentially fruitful application domains such as Education and Autism Therapy beyond the scientific arena. Very nobel endeavours indeed as robots have shown considerable promise in both.
Romeo has been a weird development. It’s had a reasonable bit of air time early on, but nothing ever really came out of it. Perhaps this is what Rude Baguette really refer to when they say that R&D that never really transformed into the game changing images that was behind it (and in Aldebaran). Notably there is also no mention of it in the blog post. I suspect Romeo is dying a quiet death as Nao and Pepper have been the far more successful ventures and gain considerably more attention.
Then we had Pepper, and what an interesting development that was. A slick, aesthetically pleasing robot that is (was) built upon the maturing software products that have been developed over the years (NaoQi and Choreographe) and unveiled to the world in an equally stylistic manner. I even know people who were starting to plan Pepper into their research programs at some universities. Again, another bright horizon for the company, at least from an academic perspective.
However, for a little while there have been rumours about some odd on-goings in the company, accompanied by some odd external observations. For example, about a year ago, there were a number job adverts (about 30) on their website, but recently (about 6 months ago), they suddenly all disappeared, and I understood that there was a hold on all job applications. Hiring has completely stopped (and the job site was quite slow to reflect this). This was followed by whispers to the external world that fairly recent newcomers to the company where being laid off. These went further to the point that there was a 20% cut in employees (apparently this was 25%). Something is clearly up in the company, and the Rude Baguette seems to confirm this on a few fronts.
So, what’s happening? Is SoftBank slowly shutting Aldebaran down? Is this a case where the company has been bought purely for it’s assets (i.e. the people building the robots and vitally the technology itself) and now will have everything move to Japan, or is it just that there is a serious misalignment in the desired future directions of the two parties? It’s hard to tell, and subject to simple speculation at the moment.
For the academics at least, there is a concern in the notion that Nao will be disappearing from the shelves in the near future! In my view (as someone who studied HRI scientifically), Nao has been a very fruitful and worthwhile tool for HRI. Not only does it provide a value for money, well equipped platform, but given the numbers it has sold in, it has provided a considerable degree of standardization for researchers. Scientific findings can also be replicated and insights can be utilized in a more meaningful way as a result. All very good things generally speaking. It this enough of an industry to keep the company afloat? I’m not business savvy enough to know that (yet), but I’ve head that the answer to this is “no”.
Another perk has been that Nao is an attractive platform that draws in children. I consider this a vital attribute of any robot, as I argue strongly that it is in the best interests of the HRI community (and here I mean both industry and academia) that we introduce children to social robotic technology at an early stage. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, early exposure to this kind of technology will likely go a long way to easing in future integration and applications (and I’m talking in 10+ years when the then young adults and parents of the future will recall their experience with robots). Secondly, the standards of children are low and they expect far less from a £6000 robot than adults do. Basically, child oriented applications provide a testing ground where current baby-step advancements in social HRI technology can be explored, evaluated and matured in the slow and careful manner that is required. I consider this as a stepping stone toward developing the technologies required to impress and engage with adults on a few (adults) to one (robot) basis (I think that many to one interactions are a different kettle of fish entirely). We as a community are still working out what is what in terms of technologies and where real potential applications lay, but we clearly see that there is appeal from both adults and children in child-oriented applications. Nao (and Aldebaran) has played an important role in uncovering and establishing this and trying to work toward making it a reality (look at the AskNAO venture).
So, for me, the news coming from Aldebaran is sad. We might be loosing an important company that is seriously helping our exploration and understanding of social HRI from a scientific perspective. I also know people in the company and hope that they are coping. It all sounds rather unpleasant from the outside, so it certainly won’t be pleasant on the inside!
Perhaps things change in the wake of this rather public news, but only time will tell…