BY NATHAN KIRCHNER
If someone tells you to think of a robot, what springs to mind? Is it a humanoid shape made of metal, with glowing eyes, that speaks in a jerky voice?
Or is it a robotic factory arm, or a car that can park for you, or maybe a system that heats or cools your house?
For some time now pop culture has painted a particular picture of robots. From Asimov’s ‘bots, to the Terminator – even the Transformers – the very concept of a robot has grown up next to these hugely popular sci-fi characters.
So why aren’t we seeing robots like these by now?
On one hand we have the glamourised depictions of sci-fi robots. On the other we have the roboticist’s more pragmatic view of robots as machines that perform functions in an autonomous way.
For these roboticists (myself included), robots are all around us – in our cars, our homes, on public transport and in buildings.
Part of the problem is that there are a number of research projects around the globe that seem to fit the “Hollywood” robot image – Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratories with their Geminoid and Robovie enabled research and our own RobotAssist to name just a couple.
This is one major source of the confusion surrounding the state of the art in robotics. In an attempt to make our research accessible to the wider world we, the roboticists, have leaned on pop culture’s sci-fi robot and subsequently reinforced the stereotype.
Sure, the fundamental research questions we are probing are embedded in the project, so there’s no harm done, right? Well, yes actually, there is.
We’ve shaped the presentation of our research around this stereotype and the actual science questions are less visible to the casual spectator of our work.
With robotics research and development presented in this manner, the tendency for the casual onlooker is to measure the gaps between the research on show and the benchmark of the sci-fi robot. This is not always a true indication of the state of the art.
I myself have been guilty of unintentionally obscuring my own research intentions by putting them in a sci-fi friendly wrapper with RobotAssist. While RobotAssist appears on the surface to be another somewhat human-like robot that can do some cool things (but is no T1000), this isn’t its intended role.
RobotAssist is a research and development platform for core robotics technologies. It has provided a valuable platform for a number of important developments that have found their way into real-world realisations. These include robust people-detection and tracking techniques that are currently deployed in mining, construction and transport environments.
From a particular robotics perspective there is little difference between the RobotAssist incarnation of the technology and how it is used in a transport environment. What changes is the way the technology is embodied.
Your local train station, say, doesn’t look anything like a robot. But in a sense, the entire building is a robot. Maybe the security cameras and embedded sensors are its eyes, maybe turning on and off exit signs and dynamically restricting and redirecting some passageways are the actuators. This kind of robot is invisible.
Put your body into it
Roboticists have been guided by the “sense-act-think” operational definition of a robot for more than 30 years now.
This definition states that a robot is a machine that can actively “sense” the state of the world, “think” intelligently about its task in light of sensed information to form an action plan, and “act” that plan upon the world.
Notice there is no mention of embodiment?
This, I believe, drives another major source of the confusion surrounding the state of the art in robotics.
Society is conditioned by pop culture to recognise robots through the way they’re embodied. Roboticists, however, often consider the embodiment superfluous, or at least tangential, to the robot.
This brings us back to the two viewpoints that I mentioned earlier. The reality is that disembodied robots are already prevalent throughout society.
Just think about our cars with their automatic parking (see video above) and braking. We don’t tend to acknowledge these machines as robots, partly due to the sci-fi stereotype and partly due to roboticists further encouraging this stereotype – but they do fit the operational definition of a robot.
Don’t get me wrong, the sci-fi style robot entering society is inevitable. Too many people want it for it to not happen.
My point is that this is just one of the many forms a robot can take, and perhaps it will be one of the later ones to be realised.
If we want a true gauge of where we are at with robotics we may need to re-calibrate our expectations of what a robot is. We are “getting there” with our research. It just turns out that “there” isn’t exactly where pop-culture told us where we should be.
Discussants Lauren Anderson, Simon Townsend, Alan Crabbe and Brad Krauskopf, facilitated by Ehon Chan.
How can we fit more people into cities without overcrowding? Kent Larson shows off folding cars, quick-change apartments and other innovations that could make the city of the future work a lot like a small village of the past.
Kent Larson designs new technologies that solve the biggest questions facing our cities.
Remember just a decade ago when the term “inner city” basically meant “dead city,” conjuring up images of destruction, dereliction and despair? Today, inner cities are “in” — innovative, hip hotbeds of convenient culture, commerce and connection. Scholars such as Richard Florida and Edward Glaeser, among others, are showing that although increasing problems accompany increasing density, urban access to the good things of life increases even faster. The centripetal force of today’s cities is pulling the ambitious and educated back in, and increasing cities’ innovative capacity, without sacrificing (at least some would argue) their inclusiveness.
Entrepreneurs, too, are moving downtown: London, Boston, Barcelona and Buenos Aires are balancing the suburban pull of Silicon Valley and Route 128. Venture capitalists are close behind. Smart mayors, such as Boston’s Mayor Menino and New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, are fostering holistic entrepreneurship ecosystems to strengthen and accelerate the trend. Nor do you have to be a mammoth metropolis to have an urban entrepreneurship policy: led by Mayor Jorge Rojas, this month a dozen public and private institutions in the city of Manizales, known throughout Colombia for its concentration of universities and safe environment, in partnership with the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project, launched a four-year initiative to dramatically increase the concentration of high growth entrepreneurship in the city.
What are we learning about what cities can do to foster entrepreneurship and innovation?
Develop an inclusive vision of high growth entrepreneurship. On the one hand, it is a reality that a small number of extraordinary entrepreneurial successes have a disproportionately stimulating effect on the environment for entrepreneurship in a city, such as the impact of Skype on Tallinn, Estonia. By definition, only a few can be extraordinarily successful, and city leaders need to communicate a coherent message to those “elites” about how important they are to your city’s future, that you need them there and will work to make it attractive. At the same time, the influx of ambitious, highly educated, opportunity-seeking entrepreneurs may risk creating social divisiveness. This can be countered with a strong message to entrepreneurs that they need to play a role in community building. With the encouragement of City Hall, entrepreneurs in Boston’s Innovation District created Innovation District Entrepreneurs After work (IDEA) to organize community events.
In parallel, you need to tirelessly communicate a coherent message to all of the stakeholders and residents, highlighting the entrepreneurial benefits of dignified job creation, quality of the environment, and innovative capacity. Boston’s Mayor Menino and his staff developed and have repeated hundreds of times the mantra of the Innovation District: “Live, work, play.” An intense social media strategy, combined with direct outreach, has led to numerous joint activities between the naturally less-affluent, creative Fort Point artists’ community and the Innovation District.
Use best processes, not best practices. As one of the leaders of the Innovation District put it to me, “We are a ‘platform,’ not a program.” An ecosystem exists in nature when numerous species of flora and fauna interact in a dynamic, self-adjusting balancing act. Thus, in cities, you need to provide a broad platform to support the inclusive vision, encouraging restaurateurs, designers, neighborhood groups, schools and universities, real estate developers, law firms and architects, chambers of commerce and other government agencies to interact with each other in innovative ways. Best processes are more important than best practices.
Boston’s Innovation District was launched with clear vision and commitment, but, surprisingly, one of its keys to success was that it had no detailed plan, budget, organizational structure, nor even an officially designated team. The fuzziness was a counter-intuitive advantage in engaging diverse stakeholders to define for themselves the role they would play. The mayor and his staff were inspirational facilitators, not controllers. They were not shy about making specific proposals and asking for investments from the private sector, but more as a way to concretize the projects’ feasibilities than to push particular programs.
One element of “best process” in fostering entrepreneurship ecosystems is experimentation. As Mayor Menino put it, “We’ll experiment with alternative housing models. We will test new ideas that provide live/work opportunities to entrepreneurs and affordable co-housing for researchers…. We’ll give architects and developers the challenge to experiment with new designs, new floor plans, and new materials. Our mandate to all will be to invent a 21st century district that meets the needs of the innovators who live and work in Boston.” Experiment. Test. Invent.
Define principles, not clusters. Innovation, creativity, design, sustainability, experimentation, entrepreneurship, inclusiveness: these are example principles to be infused into the city’s collective consciousness. But don’t prioritize specific sectors. One of the drawbacks of popular cluster strategies is that prioritizing sectors serves as a signal to entrepreneurs about where they should seek opportunity: currently, clean tech and mobile applications, for example, are de rigeur. Tomorrow it may be space travel. But you should ask, not tell. It is the entrepreneur’s job, not City Hall’s or that of a consulting firm, to learn how to identify opportunity, usually where most people think it doesn’t exist. In fact, many of the great opportunities defy definition and lie in the creative “inter-sectors”: health care and the environment; real estate development and information technology and cleantech; education and mobile communications.
Invest time, not money. Nothing is free, but one of the big temptations is for governments to step into the ubiquitous resource void with capital for either the ventures themselves, or financial incentives for capital providers, or direct funding of space for entrepreneurs. This is to be avoided: better to spend your energy persuading the stakeholders that it is worth their while to make those investments. In Boston, the mayor called on the major real estate developers to set aside a percentage of their developments for entrepreneurship and innovation. This led to the attraction of MassChallenge, the world’s largest startup competition and accelerator, which received a free floor in a new office building. This also led to the allocation of portions of high-end condominium developments to less lucrative, convenient live/work space for entrepreneurs, as well as the 12,000-square-foot Boston Innovation Center. At first, the developers seemed to be appeasing the mayor in exchange for City Hall’s good will in issuing permits. But as they are experiencing for themselves the impact of the Innovation District’s attractiveness and growth on the value of their properties, the investment is seen as enlightened self-interest.
Instead of hard cash, hardwire your calendar for entrepreneurship. Your time is one of the scarcest resources you can invest. Look at your schedule: how do you allocate your 70-hour-plus work week? Even just one hour for entrepreneurship out of the 70 will go a long way. Go to office openings of new ventures, make a congratulatory call to those who raise money, write a thank you note to the entrepreneur who hired a few engineers or a high school summer intern. Invite an entrepreneur for a short chat and a chance to have a photograph with you. Have a monthly breakfast meeting with a different group of entrepreneurs to solicit their ideas for how the city can be better for them. Ask, don’t tell. Celebrate the success.
Fight the battle for talent, not capital. Although entrepreneurs will always complain first about the chronic difficulty of raising money, the smart ones know that talent is the more important battle to win, because money follows talent. Make your city an amazing place for the most talented entrepreneurs, innovators, and creative people to come to seek their futures, to live, work and play in. The coffee shops, environmental art, evening bars, museums, bicycle lanes and rent-a-bikes, all build the buzz. In every city I work with, I start by asking entrepreneurs where they really want to be — and the unfailing consensus is uncanny: entrepreneurs need to crowd around these urban watering holes. In Boston it has become the Seaport. In Istanbul, it is Beyoglu. In Manizales, it is El Cable. Invite colleges and universities to establish presence or hold classes there, as Babson has done in the Innovation District, and as Harvard’s Kennedy School has done with its program for innovation policy makers. Successful later-stage ventures that need dozens and hundreds of talented people, and provide dozens of jobs, will take notice, and will not be able to afford to stay away.
Building on urban entrepreneurship policies such as these, and creating new ones, is the keystone for creating jobs and reinvigorating the global economy.
Listen to this ABC bradcast about innovation challenges in Australia.
Leadership and innovation go hand-in-hand. By Design panel examines these concepts with Australia in mind. Where are we doing well, and where are we failing? Why are we falling behind? Design thinking is the key to understanding the changes
Guests: Dana Arnett, CEO, VSA Partners, Chicago, Speaker, AGIdeas, Melbourne, 2012; Mauro Porcini, Head, Global Design, 3M, Speaker, AGIdeas, Melbourne, 2012; Professor Ken Friedman, Dean of Faculty of Design, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne
Broadcasted on Wednesday 23 May 2012 2:38 PM
Producer: Janne Ryan
By Philip Auerswald, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. He is the author of The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the Global Economy.
As the editor of the journal Innovations, I’m asked with some regularity, “So, what is innovation anyhow? How would you…”? (eyebrows usually furrow here) “… define it?” Since I don’t particularly enjoy debating definitions, I usually respond by saying: “That’s a difficult question. But one thing is for sure: If you’re not pissing someone off, it’s probably not innovation.”
I like this response because, if it doesn’t end the conversation, it usually shifts it from definitions to dynamics — which is what innovation is all about, after all. But I also like it because it captures one fundamental obstacle to innovation that all would-be disruptors must be prepared to face: the potentially hostile response of incumbents who don’t want to see their market advantages threatened.
There’s nothing new here. We all know that Joseph Schumpeter talked about creative destruction decades ago. And he was well aware of the likelihood of vigorous pushback from threatened incumbents:
To undertake such new things is difficult and constitutes a distinct economic function, first because they lie outside the routine tasks which everyone understands and, secondly, because the environment resists in many ways that will vary, according to social conditions, from simple refusal either to finance or buy a new thing, to physical attack on the man who tries to produce it.
Since you, the disruptive entrepreneur, can count on incumbent resistance (if not necessarily physical attack) down the road once you’re successful, the question is: What can you do early on to be prepared for the onslaught?
The famed “Attack of the Doughboy” offers one good answer.
It was 1987. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had just successfully completed Vermont’s first in-state public stock offering for shares in their new company. Sales were taking off, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was competing head-to-head with the vaunted Häagen-Dazs. Then Häagen-Dazs was acquired by Pillsbury. One day, says Cohen, a Ben & Jerry’s distributor contacted the two young entrepreneurs:
We found a dark corner of some restaurant at Logan Airport, and the distributor informed us that the salespeople from Pillsbury threatened to stop selling Häagen-Dazs to him if he continued to sell Ben & Jerry’s. The distributor clearly liked us, but we were the newcomers, the upstarts, and the distributor made more money off Häagen-Dazs than anything else on his truck. He couldn’t afford to leave his customers without it, so he had no choice but to drop our product.
Ben & Jerry’s response was a definitive moment for the company. Pillsbury clearly was in violation of Federal Trade Commission regulations against the restraint of interstate commerce. But pursuing legal action would bankrupt their company even if they ultimately won.
So the partners turned to a more dependable source of enforcement: their customers.
They launched the “What’s the Doughboy Afraid of?” campaign, with their customers in the lead. “A lot of letters started pouring in to the chairman of the board of Pillsbury,” Cohen recalls, “and some major articles appeared. Finally the Doughboy got such a black eye that Pillsbury relented and allowed our distributor to continue to offer our ice cream.”
Richard Branson tells very similar stories about epic battles between Virgin Airways and British Airways (a win for Virgin) and between Virgin Cola and Coca-Cola (a loss for Virgin). Where he succeeded, it was because his customers were loyal to the point of being willing to advocate on Virgin’s behalf.
Here’s the point. The more disruptive your innovation, the more your success needs to look like the creation of a political movement.
If you’re really creating change, it is quite likely you will reach a point when you’ll ask your customers to do more to support your work than just buy your product. They will need to stand up for your business, your product, your very right to exist in the marketplace. You’re going to be asking for their time. Depending on where you’re working and what you’re selling, you may be asking for their courage. To make such requests, you’re going to need to have built a hell of a personal bond.
“Ethics aren’t just important in business,” Branson says. “They are the whole point of business.” This isn’t just happy talk from a guy who’s already made it. It’s sound advice on how to succeed as a business innovator in the 21st century.
For folks who are looking for operational principles, take these from Lisa Gansky’s fabulous book, The Mesh.
- Say what you do — manage expectations and revisit them frequently.
- Use trials.
- Do what you say.
- Perpetually delight customers.
- Embrace social networks and go deep.
- Value transparency but protect privacy.
- Deal with negative publicity and feedback promptly and skillfully.