April 22, 2015      

Vecna Technologies Inc. may be relatively new to the robotics scene, but its leadership is committed to building the community, both for staff development and among robotics companies. Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief technology officer of Vecna, sat down with Robotics Business Review to discuss goals and challenges for the robotics industry.

Vecna started out as a software company and moved into robotics five years ago. “That was always the plan,” said Theobald. “Seventeen years ago, the chances of robotics success were slim.”

Since then, Vecna has expanded from medical assistive software and the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR) for troop rescue to the Kinova robotic arms for industrial automation, the VGO telepresence system, and the QC Bot for materials handling. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company also produces hospital and agricultural robots, noted Fady Saad, R&D business director.

“Many people think we were a robotics company first,” Theobald said. Vecna has invested heavily in key robotics technologies, including navigation, manipulation, machine perception, human-robot interaction, and planning and coordination.

These developments are meant to be in service of humanity rather than for mere profit, Theobald said. “It’s not just about making money; we want to improve lives,” he said. The challenge is to encourage career seekers and other robotics companies to recognize that.

Vecna has executed on its altruism by helping local nonprofit organizations and using its network and robot tools to help the fight against Ebola in Africa. Theobald dismissed the recent pronouncements of the imminent robot apocalypse. “We don’t need to fear robots, but people [who misuse technology],” he said.

Nurturing the next generation

A major problem for Vecna and the U.S. robotics industry is attracting and retaining talent. About half of Vecna’s 300 employees are engineers, said Saad. “We can’t hire enough good engineering people,” he said.

“It’s hard to find qualified candidates because of our educational system,” said Theobald. “We need to change the environment.” Programs to encourage interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in schools are good, but they’re not sufficient, he said.

“The goal was brilliant — to make tech ‘cool’ — but such programs often miss the mark,” he said. “We need to change some things. What if we could help people become famous [for robotics] or if we could televise these competitions?”

Vecna Technologies logo

Vecna has mentored high school students through the FIRST Robotics Competition, and it recently sponsored a “robot race” consisting of a human 5K and a robot 100-meter dash.

Robotics contests should be more like spectator sports, drawing a wide audience, Theobald said. To get more people interested, it would be better if the rules and goals for the biggest competitions didn’t change every year and were understandable to the general public, he said.

There’s also room for improvement in the promotion of STEM, he observed. “The organizations can get mired in their own politics,” Theobald said. “We could use a fresh set of eyes and leadership.”

Another problem is that it’s too easy for children — and adults — “to suck down media these days,” said Theobald and Saad. “The average teenager today consumes 30,000 hours of media between the ages of 12 and 18,” Theobald said. “It supposedly takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something.”

Theobald said he removed the television from his home and found that his children read more. He and Saad are also considering a scholarship program to help identify and promote young roboticists.

People need heroes.

— Dan Theobald, co-founder and CTO, Vecna

The lure of lucre

The U.S. has a particular problem — too many people are resting on our laurels and assume that we’ll stay on top,” asserted Theobald. “There’s a crisis: We can’t have influence in the world without economic prosperity, and we need for the next generation to carry forward with innovation and hard work.”

“Instead of coming here, young talent is drawn by Wall Street,” he said, adding that it’s harder to innovate than to extract money through finance. “People need heroes. We need to make use of peer pressure as a motivator” to encourage workers to find fulfilling careers that benefit society as a whole, he said.

“We need to shed the idea that you have to make a lot of money to have a satisfying life,” Theobald said. “Robots can enable people to pursue arts and science, higher-end careers. We need to change the narrative and set good examples.” He acknowledged that retraining will be necessary.

Automation is changing the nature of work — and not just blue-collar jobs. “No argument relieves the urgency of doing everything we can,” Theobald said. “We should educate the population to gain prosperity through leadership and policies encouraging citizens to take positive actions.”

Theobald agreed that robotics companies will have to work with educational institutions and governments to create a favorable environment for retraining end users and bringing people into the industry.

“We’ve found a stunning correlation: The engineers who do well at Vecna are those who have pursued projects on their own, not directly related to work or school,” Theobald said. “They were excited by technology.”

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