December 12, 2014      

Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, has served up for our review and consideration yet another interview with a robotics pioneer: Nest’s Yoky Matsuoka.

Matsuoka recently sat down with Pransky to share her career journey that led her from a semi-professional tennis player who wanted to build a robot tennis buddy, to a pioneer of neurobotics who then applied her multidisciplinary research in academia to the development of a mass-produced intelligent home automation device in Nest.

The interview has been made available for free to RBR readers until Jan. 15, 2015. Just follow this link. Matsuoka/Pransky

Here’s a quick preview:

Pransky: How did you get from there to your brilliant discovery of the thermostat control that has saved the USA hundreds of billions of dollars in energy expenses?

Matsuoka: An actual prosthetic arm working with the human brain to me is not that different from a thermostat attached on a wall with someone coming home, feeling cold and touching it. There’s the human/machine interaction.


For disabled people, they want to feel their arm so they can grab their coffee and drink it, and open the fridge and do everyday tasks. For the thermostat world, humans want to save energy while they don’t have to feel too cold or too hot. There are certain desires that they want to minimally achieve. How do we get there? As it turns out for the thermostat world, people are not very good at saving energy, even if they wanted to. But they want to save energy.

How much effort do we spend in turning off lights? Usually, most people say, “I always try to turn off the light when I go out of the room, and I feel kind of bad if I forget or if I come home and the lights are still on or the fridge was still open.” That’s pretty standard. But a surprising amount of people forget to turn down the temperature.

While people are out of the house, their heating and cooling may cost, on average, about 50 per cent of the entire home’s energy: 30 per cent in California, 70 per cent in Texas, and 80 per cent in Alaska. But people just forget, because we humans are not that good at remembering that task. So here’s an interesting balance of machine learning and human learning. Humans want to be energy efficient. Machines are good at knowing that humans left and they forgot to turn down the temperature. So why can?t we team up and do the right thing?

Pransky: Was it Google that presented you with the problem that you found a solution for? Or did you brainstorm on how you could apply your technology to a consumer product?
Matsuoka: Here’s the funny story that is not often spoken. When I was at Google, I bumped into an old student of mine from Carnegie Mellon, Matt Rogers (the founder and VP of Engineering at Nest Labs).


Matt was just toying around with the beginning of the idea of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). We had lunch. He said, “I have this really good idea. It’s about HVAC.” And I still remember his face when he said HVAC with such incredible excitement. I was thinking, “This guy’s nuts. He’s gone south.” And then he kept explaining it.

Over the course of the next 30 minutes, I changed my mind: “Wow. I never imagined thermostats or HVAC could be this exciting.” That was the beginning of meeting one and by meeting two I realized that this is it. This is sort of the idea that’s so well put together. I felt that what I can really bring to the whole product was this missing piece about the human-machine collaboration.

Click here to read the entire interview.

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The Essential Interview: iRobot’s Paolo Pirjanian
The Essential Interview: When Bill Townsend Met Burton Doo
The Essential Interview: Mark Tilden, Inventor of BEAM Robotics
The Essential Interview: Rich Walker, Shadow Robot Company
The Essential Interview: Russ Angold, Co-Founder, Ekso Bionics