The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
— Mark Weiser (1952-1999)
Here we go
It was like Jimmy Fallon moving Jay Leno offstage or Stephen Colbert saying goodbye to David Letterman.
The times they are a changing, and it was never more evident than at RoboBusiness 2015, as the venerable, decade-old, robotics conference opened its doors to greet a new and ready age of autonomous machines and their makers.
Long gone was the questioning and uncertainty of robotics being “just around the corner” or even worthy of calling itself an industry beyond the hulking giants in automobile plants.
The 1,600 attendees and 80-plus exhibitors at the annual robotics conference and exposition were self-confident and energetic, looking quite certain that they were in the vanguard of ushering into position the world’s next general-purpose technology.
They were finally in charge — and they knew it. RoboBusiness was a great way for them to hang out together and to tell each other what they will do about it. Or better yet, what they were doing about it.
They had a lot to say. Not a word of which was laced with even the hint of doubt.
In a year that has seen its first six months double the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in robotics in all of last year. During that time, robotics mergers and acquisitions were off the charts, not only in terms of the size of the transactions, but also as to who was pulling off these remarkable mergers and acquisitions. It’s quite understandable why the crowd at RoboBusiness was bubbling over with energy, excitement and conviction.
Rock stars of robotics
Rethink, Fetch, and Clearpath Robotics, collectively the recipients of $100 million in venture capital, were well-focused and each on a roll at RoboBusiness. Each company has had breakout years as solution providers to the world rather than just developers of cool robotics.
Large industry players — sensing opportunity to be robot-ready — had rolled out well north of $500 million in acquiring Adept and Universal Robot for as yet unspecified future strategies.
Even the singular sensation, Pepper, which sold out its first product offering in under two minutes, happily rolled around the RoboBusiness Expo floor with a wallet chock-full of $230 million-plus from the likes of Foxconn and Alibaba.
HUBO, the amazing Korean humanoid that crashed the DARPA Grand Challenge and easily walked off with the $2 million top prize, was in the house with its very upbeat creators from Rainbow Robotics.
The ever-clever chairman of his ever-morphing Blue Ocean Robotics, Claus Risager, was there explaining his remarkable franchising strategy. Think the Planet Fitness of robotics, with consulting, integration, systems engineering, even robot design and fabrication franchised globally but operated locally. It’s all about speed and not waiting years to build infrastructure. His organization now dots Europe and the U.S. and has plans for China in the offing.
For startups, restarts, and newbies in booths on the expo floor or as attendees trouping the halls of the RoboBusiness conference sessions, seeing these well-monied, successful robot developers and entrepreneurs was the best tonic for encouragement to persevere. Robotics finally has its own rock stars and their stardom resonated throughout the two-day event.
Robotics is now moving very fast, and big to mega things are happening in the robotics space. All of which are unprecedented — and about time.
Just what is happening was made clear by Alison Sander of the Boston Consulting Group in her jammed-packed, standing-room-only conference session, “Market Forecast: Where is the Robotics Industry Going?”
Robot-driven automation is now accepted as the path to regaining lost ground in productivity, which has been plummeting downward since 2000.
Most anyone in manufacturing and logistics is now convinced of it and are reacting with a double digit buying pace in acquiring robotic solutions. That conviction is bolstered by the first empirical evidence (from the London School of Economics) that indeed robotics is the key.
Sander’s well-wrought charts ably laid out the trajectory for robotics near- and long-term prosperity.
It could very well be that this year’s RoboBusiness saw the first blush — and maybe didn’t recognize it quite fully — of what MIT’s Daniela Rus calls the “age of pervasive robotics.”
With a tip of her hat to Xerox PARC’s Mark Weiser, Rus writes in “The Robots are Coming” for the July/August Foreign Affairs, “There are still significant gaps between where robots are today and the promise of a future era of ‘pervasive robotics,’ when robots will be integrated into the fabric of daily life, becoming as common as computers and smartphones are today.”
Every future era, especially one as bold and as inevitable as pervasive robotics, has at its very beginning that moment of belief when everyone on the journey collectively senses, “Here we go.” RoboBusiness reflected that belief and more.
The ‘New’ RoboBusiness — by design
It wasn’t a fluke that RoboBusiness 2015 was right on the money with its conference tracks and sessions, rather, the event was designed that way from the get-go.
Casey Nobile, chairwoman of the 2015 edition and in her first full year as the event’s impresario, set about taking RoboBusiness in a new direction back in February’s early planning stages.
It was risky, but she was determined that RoboBusiness should more closely reflect the robotics zeitgeist that’s sweeping over the industry.
Together with her RoboBusiness Advisory Council, she plotted and crafted each and every session and speaker presentation (40 in all) to dovetail into the subtitle she tacked onto the event: “Robotics in the Corporate Spotlight.”
A decided youth movement for the session presenters was clearly in evidence: The up-and-coming new blood of robotics put on a show with their fresh, imaginative rethinking on critical aspects of robotics, its future, and how it will drive automation.
Cloud robotics, the Internet of Things, advanced manufacturing, autonomous vehicles, healthcare robotics, transforming logistics, open-source robotics, home robotics, investing, business trends, emerging markets, software innovation, security, and dozens of other topics all got a new shake and bake from their youthful presenters.
Even the RoboBusiness Exposition with its own forty-seat Expo Theater was a lively scene of wall-to-wall presentations for both days.
If anyone had something to say and it was meaningful, well-crafted and researched, they could book 30 minutes (for a small fee) for a shot at filling every seat.
Many did just that; some gaining a following from it or scoring an interview with one or some of the dozens of media companies and journalists in attendance.
Greybeards participated as well; their experience, sage advice and insights into the course of technological innovation were well received and appreciated. Even the ageless Ray Kurzweil, the archangel of the Singularity, put in a cameo as a keynote speaker and chipped in with his revolutionary take on “The Coming Merger of Robots and Biology.”
Overall, the sessions were big hits. Where there duds among them? Sure, and Nobile is the first to admit a misfire here and there. She knows that perfection is impossible. Attendees voted with their feet on a couple of sessions that she thought for sure would be very popular.
Frequent RoboBusiness presenter and exhibitor, Littler’s Garry Mathiason, co-chair of his law firm’s Robotics, AI and Automation Industry Group, enthused: “This was the best RoboBusiness yet.” He was far from alone in expressing that sentiment.
When Mathiason and others remarked about the event being the best RoboBusiness yet, what they were really praising was the “new” RoboBusiness, and it was extraordinary.