industry

IET Talk on Dyson 360 eye

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Here’s an interesting video from an IET event held in Bristol in early October. Mike Aldered talks through the story and development behind the 360 eye, and highlights lots of interesting things surrounding the development of robots from a company perspective.

Mike does a great job does illustrating some of the differences in the conceptual problems that academia addresses, and the real challenges faced when applying some of the solutions to real-world problems. Makes me want to point to my last post again. Ask yourself how can you apply your research to the real world? It is worth thinking about!

Watch the video here.

Moving to Dyson, and thoughts on academic research and industry

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So, it’s been about 10 weeks since I joined Dyson (makers of the 360 eye robot vacuum), having left Engineered Arts over the summer, and while the move itself was perhaps not the most opportune thing to happen at that particular point in time, I think that it has been a very good outcome in the grand scheme of things. I’m back in Research, which, after a stint in a pure development role, I now realize is where my heart is. Also, I’m in job where I can apply more of my broad skills set. Generally, I’d say that I’m happier with the direction of my life and career.

It has been about a year since I decided to move out of academia into industry, and while it has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, I’ve had lots of experiences and insights that been good food for thought and reflection. Though my time at EA was short, and rather stressful at times, I learnt some very important things about the differences in the internal functioning of small (and now larger) companies and universities, as well as the differences between robotics development, and robotics research.

Running a small company is clearly very difficult, and I take my hat off to anyone who has the guts and endurance to give it a sustained go. I don’t think that I have those guts (at least not now). Also, in a small company resources are stretched and managing those resources is difficult, and when you are a resource, that can be a very rocky journey indeed. That is something that I didn’t really get in academia, so it was quite a learning curve to get used to that.

I think that one of the most important things that I learnt in EA was to do with software development/management. I always suspected that software development in a PhD environment followed some “bad practices”, and when I look back at how I was managing software during my PhD (it was all via Dropbox, with no version control!) I was lucky nothing messed up too badly. What I saw in EA was something that was far more extreme than anything else that I had seen previously and it was a big eye opener. I also paid a lot attention to the style of (python) coding that I saw at EA as I was working with a couple of professional and very experienced software developers. Needless to say, I learnt a lot about software development in my time there.

Dyson is a completely different kettle of fish. For a start, it is a much larger company compared to EA, but still a small fish in a big ocean. Also, it is quite widely known that it is a very secretive company, and as such, I can’t say much about it. However, that is part of what makes it such an exciting place to work, and also very different to the academic environment. This secrecy is a strange thing coming from academia, which traditionally is very open. It takes a little getting used to, but it a very important aspect of the company (again, I can’t say much about work).

Overall, I’m quite glad that I made the change to industry, as I’ve learnt alot, and I think that I have become a better engineer, and a better roboticist as a result, which is generally my goal. I’m also happy to be working with robots that are truly going into the “wild”, as I feel that I am closer to helping make robots make a meaningful impact to the world – I can see the fruits of my labour in the hands of real people/users. That gives me alot of job satisfaction.

I’ve always had an uneasy feeling that there is a disconnect between academic robotics research and the trajectory that it is trying to depict/push – this “all singing and dancing” robot that is inevitably coming – and how we are actually going to get there given the current state of the (social) robotics industry and the current trajectory. I strongly believe that we need the population to get used to idea of sharing the world around us (physical and perhaps cyber space) with autonomous robots ASAP, before we unveil these “all singing and dancing” robots.

From what I have seen, it think that this is vital in order to promote uptake of smarter future robots (the kind that academia is has in mind) – if we are uneasy with robots around us, we will never accept these future robots (particularly as they will be larger in general). With that, I generally feel that there is a lack of academic HRI research that addresses research issues that will impact (and help) industry in the next 5 years or so. This is the kind of time frame that will help companies move toward building robots that academia is aiming for. Make no mistake, companies like Aldebaran, Dyson, iRobot, Samsung, Honda, EA, ect, are at the forefront and cutting edge of manipulating the uptake and wide-scale perception of robots in the present, and they are holding the steering wheel that will direct the trajectory of the kinds of robots we will see in the future (based upon how people react now, not in 10 years time).

I guess that there is perhaps a little message in all of this – if you’re an academic, and asked me for a research advice, I’d encourage you to tackle practical issues and provide solutions that companies can pick up and run with in a fairly short time frame. The alternative to this is work that stays “hot and alive” in a research lab, but has far less utility outside the lab space. In essence it could be collecting dust until a industry is in a position to actually apply it (if it remembers and/or finds that the work was ever done).

I’m stopping here, as I’m not sure whether I’m drifting off topic from what I had in my head when I started writing this post. I do think that it captures some of my thoughts on academic research and how it applies to industry. I’ll probably mull it over a bit more, and dump my thoughts here at a later date as this is a topic I have been thinking about for a while. However, if you have an opinion on this, I’d love to hear it! Perhaps it’s a topic for the HRI conference panel?

What’s the Future of Aldebaran Robotics?

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Today I came across this Rude Baguette post which discussed the current ongoings at Aldebaran Robotics, which seem to have been spurred on due to the 2012 acquisition by SoftBank.

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…

Moving on from Plymouth

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So after completing my PhD and a Post-Doc at Plymouth, I have decided to move onto new and exciting challenges, and I’ve opted to make a move to industry. From the 24th November I will join Engineered Arts Ltd in Cornwall where I will be working to develop the social aspects of their robots RobotThespian and SociBot.

I’ve very much enjoyed my time here in Plymouth, and I have been very fortunate and am very proud to have worked with and learned from world-class scientists. But after 6 years here, I feel that it is time to move on.

Though this is not the end of my links to academia. Engineered Arts frequent the main Human-Robot Interaction conferences to show their robots, and so I hope to attend these conferences as part of the company and catch up with the friends and network in the HRI community. So, hope to catch you guys in HRI’15 in Portland!