Editor’s Note: This article about RBR50 company Anki originally appeared in USA Today as part of its Change Agents series that highlights innovators and entrepreneurs looking to change business and culture with their vision.
This is Boris Sofman’s idea of fun: bouncing along in a Hummer as it chases a self-driving SUV named Crusher with wheels the size of an NBA player through the forests of Colorado, marveling at how the driverless machine “reacts to its environment almost like an animal, because it’s alive.”
Consider Sofman a friendly Dr. Frankenstein. And he’s on a mission to change the way the world looks at robots.
The 30-year-old is ringleader of a giddy group of Ph.D.s who work at Anki, whose first product – Drive, a $200 futuristic gaming twist on slot cars – launched a few months back and is currently available through the company’s website and in Apple stores. Drive’s revolutionary coup was taking away the slots and outfitting each car with a 50-megahertz processor, more power than a late-’80s computer.
The transplant’s result? Each monstrously fiendish sports car is imbued with the ability to sense its on-track competitors and plot their own race while factoring in commands from each player’s iPhone-based controller.
“Robots can be intimidating, but when you have cars that come to life and sneak up on you and operate on their own because they’re really intelligent, no one’s intimidated by that,” says Sofman, a wide-eyed dreamer of a fast-talking scientist whose ideas seem to barely keep pace with his mouth.
“We saw an opportunity at the intersection of toys, games and mobile devices to do something no one’s done, which is program a video game on top of physical characters in the real world, our cars,” he says. “Zooming out, this puts us in a position to develop other products with other uses. We’re at an inflection point. Hardware costs are plummeting; reliability is increasing. These are exciting times.”
There’s no mistaking Sofman’s forward-looking mission. Drive is merely Anki’s fun-filled initial foray into consumer robotics; Sofman and his co-founders – Mark Palatucci, 35, and Hanns Tappeiner, 34 – are bent on making their company the dominant intelligent-gizmo brand of the 21st century.
Anki co-founders (from left) Mark Palatucci, Boris Sofman, and Hanns Tappeiner
Of course, the mere mention of robots tends to conjure fears, from manufacturing jobs vanishing to self-driving cars glitching with tragic results. Sofman, the son of Russian immigrants to Texas whose father worked as a mathematician for the pioneering telecom company MCI, just smiles.
“Think of the first time people were told to get in an airplane,” he says. “There are psychological stepping stones, but we’ll get over them.”
Talking to Things With Our Phones
Some feel confident Sofman and his team will lead us over that psychological hurdle and into peaceful coexistence with autonomous devices.
“Anki has hit on a very innovative idea, which is linking powerful computers people already carry around, the smartphone, with devices that promise to make our lives easier, whether that’s a pool cleaner or lawn mower or a gutter scrubber,” says Tony Stentz, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, of which Sofman is a graduate.
“The sky’s the limit when it comes to talking to our appliances using our phones,” he says. “I’ve been in robotics a long time, and we’re finally getting to the point where decreasing (component) costs are allowing people to build something useful.”
Sofman and his team’s intellectual bona fides are top notch; they’re the kind of people who give their workplace conference rooms names like Voronoi and Markov, respectively a diagram that divides space into regions and a mathematical system that undergoes transitions from one state to another. Don’t ask.
But Anki’s front man has another trait that will be key to growing his company, says Ben Horowitz, whose firm Andreessen Horowitz was an early investor.
“Boris is deep down a people person, which is not the norm for a guy with a Ph.D. in robotics,” says Horowitz with a laugh. “He also has the ability to stay in the batter’s box on a given problem, to really focus. Those two things combine to make him a great wartime CEO.”
Talk of Sofman’s people skills brings us back to Crusher and those weeks-long camping trips in the Rocky Mountains wilderness he took while doing his graduate work at Carnegie Mellon.
Computer programming can be a solitary affair. But robotics, and in particular autonomous vehicle projects, Sofman’s passion, “requires constant collaboration between big teams of people working on sensor systems, electromechanics, planning algorithms and so on. You have to be more social.”
Those group efforts ultimately planted the seeds of Anki, a Japanese word meaning “to learn by heart.” While working on complex devices with six-figure price tags for everyone from military brass to big agricultural companies, Sofman became convinced that as soon as tech advances brought costs down on sensors and other parts, a new era of consumer-tech robotics would be born.
“Hanns and I spent a year in Silicon Valley working for Neato (a robotic vacuum company), and we were able to put algorithms that we used on these other huge projects onto a $400 consumer device that did deep artificial intelligence,” he says. “That gave us a taste of our future.”
Starting With Toys
Entertainment, and in particular toys, seemed a logical place to start with Anki, which officially launched in 2010 and began hiring in 2011. “The toy world hasn’t evolved as much as the video game industry, but it has this powerful connection with the physical world that just doesn’t exist with computer games,” he says.
If we are in the infancy of consumer robotics, Anki Drive represents the first baby steps. But big strides are coming, says investor Horowitz.
“Science fiction really threw us all off the path by envisioning robots that were humanoid, but it turns out it’s a lot easier for them to get around on wheels than two legs,” he says. “Anki’s cars are more like what we’ll be seeing, something that just a few short years ago wasn’t feasible at $100,000, let alone $200.”
Sofman simply can’t wait for the future, so he’s busy creating it. “What’s coming is inevitable,” he says simply. “It will be possible to have so much more intelligent interaction with things we do and use daily. You’ll see.”