June 02, 2017      

Robotics, AI, the cloud, and IoT are transforming industries around the world. LiveWorx 2017 provided all the evidence needed to back up that statement, as more than 5,100 attendees descended on the Boston Convention Center to be part of the convergence of digital and physical systems.

After lasers and dancing robots dazzled the crowd to open the conference, PTC president and CEO Jim Heppelmann made his case for this convergence.

“I watch in amazement as the world’s largest digital companies like Google and Microsoft move to create physical products, while, at the same time, the world’s largest physical companies like GE and ABB are reinventing themselves as digital companies,” Heppelmann said. “Existing businesses are being disrupted, and surprising new markets are being created by the innovative possibilities that are being unleashed.”

PTC partnered with Robo Business Media, the parent of Robotics Trends, for the event’s first-ever track on robotics. Heppelmann told Robotics Trends “the world of robotics is the perfect example of where the physical and digital worlds merged. Robots are physical machines that have a digital essence inside of it – computer software – and LiveWorx is creating a community of people who are thinking about what this convergence means for them.”

In the robotics track, experts and attendees discussed social robotics and “emotional” artificial intelligence, healthcare automation, smart manufacturing, and more. Here are some initial robotics trends discussed at LiveWorx 2017. Our sister publication Robotics Business Review offered additional takeaways.

1. Massachusetts still No. 1 in robotics

For the 14th year in a row, Massachusetts is the top-ranked state in the country on the Milken Institute State Technology and Science Index. For those working in the robotics industry here, this comes as no surprise.

The state is home to some of the top university robotics programs in the U.S., including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and Harvard University. Furthermore, Massachusetts is home to more than 150 robotics companies, which employ over 4,700 people, according to Katie Stebbins, assistant secretary of innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship for the commonwealth.

“The reason why Massachusetts is doing so well is that people aren’t staying in their lanes; they’re going out and meeting each other,” said Stebbins, referring to the variety of robotics institutions in the state. “We have so many puzzle pieces on the floor, we’re trying to build connective tissue between them.”

The state government is encouraging robotics entrepreneurs to set up shop in Massachusetts and take advantage of the pool of skilled talent and a range of financial incentives.

“We are the envy of the nation, when they really see what we have here,” said Mark Smithers, co-founder of Boston Engineering, a product developer in Waltham, Mass. “There’s a richness of the [robotics] cluster activity. … If you live in Massachusetts, you have no reason to go anywhere else because you can do everything here.”

2. Continuing AI improvements helping bring social robots to market

Although consumers have expected household robots for years, the human-machine interfaces and underlying artificial intelligence have only matured recently. Researchers and companies are working to combine speech recognition, computer vision, and machine learning to meet the demand.

For instance, the highly anticipated Jibo social robot is “designed to be in your home and to help you interact with technology,” said Robert Pack, chief architect and roboticist at Boston-based Jibo.

But with these goals come incredible challenges, as Pack was the first to admit.

“The goal of social robots is to have good, successful social interactions each day,” and that’s where the issues lie, he said. While hardware for social robots such as Jibo is ready for production, software challenges remain.

Pack dismissed the many knockoffs of Jibo seen at CES 2017. He said his company is working to make its robots as human-like as possible in their interactions.

However, improvements are coming that should help bring social robots to the market soon. Abdelrahman Mahmoud, a product manager at Affectiva, demonstrated emotional recognition software at LiveWorx.

Boston-based Affectiva’s product tracks facial points, recognizing seven different emotional metrics. When users changed their expressions, the software displayed emojis in real time indicating how strongly the user’s face showed joy, surprise, fear, or anger.

With software like Affectiva’s providing feedback about user moods, human-like social robots are closer than ever.

3. Robotic medicine has enormous potential

Of all the industries that robotics could soon revolutionize, perhaps the one most talked about at LiveWorx was healthcare. While surgical robots such Medtech’s Rosa have become more common, the experts at LiveWorx were optimistic about much wider applications of robotics in medicine.

Robots could aid in rehabilitation and patient care, especially for the elderly, said Kenn Harper, VP of devices and emerging markets at Nuance Communications in Burlington, Mass. With aging populations and a shortage of caregivers, he said it would be useful to have “a robot that could check in on patients, ask them questions like ‘How are you doing?'”

“We could have robots in homes for the elderly, making sure they take their prescriptions, or in assisted living homes,” Harper said. “Do these people get the necessary cognitive stimulation they need in these places? There’s a huge opportunity in medical robotics to have robot-to-human conversations.”

“The holy grail for robots is that we’ll get to natural language generation,” he added. “We really need to get to having an understanding of the task or language [presented to the robot], and then constructing those [responding] dialogues automatically.”

MedTech Rosa

Similarly to consumer social robots, as AI improves, Harper said he expects robots to aid patients in a variety of human-like manners.

Rosa is used to deliver catheters, deliver doses of radiation, and to assist in other neurosurgery procedures, explained Mark Johnson, chair of the neurosurgery department at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. However, full autonomy is still far away because of the complex and unique nature of each human body, he said.

Gregory Fischer, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at WPI, spoke about the integration of robotics with hospital networks and database systems. The combination of cyber and physical systems should enhancing medical care, he said.