No south by southwest for me this year. No need to drink weird promotional energy drinks while watching bands play in the front yards at 9 a.m. or go out of my way to see the Daniel Johnston mural on the side of the deliciously named but definitely closed Thai, how are you going Restaurant.
For a change of pace, I decided to lock myself in my apartment for the week, order takeout, and be nostalgic for the series of little inconveniences of air travel and getting out of my house, in general.
However, if you find yourself in Austin this year, you can catch the premiere of More than Robots, directed by Gillian “Britta from Community” Jacobs at the film festival. For the rest of us pandemic shutdowns, the movie hits Disney+ on March 18th. The Lucasfilm-produced documentary focuses on the FIRST robotics competition, founded by Segway/iBOT inventor Dean Kamen in 1989.
This week, we kick things off by interviewing Kamen about FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the state of STEM education in the United States.
Take me back to the start. What was the robotics competition landscape like in the United States when you founded the organization?
There was no landscape. There was no contest. So, we are done with this topic. […] It’s not about robots. It was never about robots. Even FIRST’s slogan is “more than robots”. Thirty years ago when I started FIRST, it never occurred to me that my goal was to talk about robots or a robot competition.
I don’t invent slogans, I’m not a marketing guy, but to get people to help me, I said to them: “We don’t use children to build robots”. We use robots to build children!’ I need a way to compete with the sports world. Academia attracts a very small number of people to science, technology and engineering, and generally our culture has mastered the fact that only special, geek, nerd people can or would like to do math or science.
[…]Thirty years ago, when I started FIRST, it was very simple. I’m not looking to give the advantage to the haves by finding a new and better way to do a science fair that already attracts smart kids to create an even bigger gap than the haves and have-nots because technology makes it easier to create more power, more wealth, more ability, leaving everyone further behind. I had exactly the opposite goal. I was afraid that what is happening now will happen, which is that we are going to have two classes of people: people who understand how to use the power of technology and who will be on this ever-accelerating bus and there will be everyone otherwise it’s under this bus.
Results are another link to sport. You do something and it either works or it doesn’t.
Yeah. And the kids have no one to blame, and if it works, they can strut their stuff and be proud. The laws of physics are pretty clear, and kids, no matter what their background, when they start playing with technology, there’s no escaping it. Mother nature is undefeated. You can circumvent all the laws that we enact in our society. But the laws of nature are subtle, but they are fair, elegant and consistent. Children who go through FIRST begin to appreciate the laws of nature and the power of analytical thinking. That’s why we do it.
Think the education gap has only widened over the past 30 years?
We have significantly closed the gap for all children in FIRST programs. Something like 30% of those kids are female, 50% come from Title One schools. We are truly successfully looking for the right kids to make the biggest difference in their lives. But, context, everything I feared was happening in our society, with wealth going more and more to those who are affluent and using technology as a weapon, not a tool, unfortunately all of this has become a real potential for undermine our whole society. When I first promoted FIRST, it was to prevent that. Now I think that’s the antidote to that. It happened, and we need to fix it.
FIRST and similar programs are extracurricular. Is there anything that can be done to integrate it more directly into the classroom?
If there’s one place I’d give myself a C- or maybe a D, it’s when I started FIRST, I pretty much got it all figured out. Make it ambitious, do it after school, do it like all the other sports they play – keep it out of the classroom! Keeping him out of the classroom was probably an unnecessary, self-inflicted injury. What I realized is that while only a few kids play on the college football or basketball team, every kid in school can go to gym class and play a little baseball, a bit of basketball, a bit of football and getting familiar with that.
[…]At the same time we started doing this super fun thing after school, we should have at least made it available to get a taste of it in class and we didn’t immediately start doing it.
[Editor’s note: FIRST now offers an educational curriculum for in-class learning.]
Something that a lot of people are talking about around robotics and automation is the possible loss of blue collar jobs.
Is there more to be done to educate and prepare this workforce?
I would ask someone to find me a single example of a new technology that ended up creating fewer jobs and fewer jobs in terms of fun and paying for them. People take a snapshot and think the world is a zero-sum game. At one time there were ditch diggers and you could make a hole to build a house and make a road. It took a hundred people to make a hole big enough for a house and 10,000 people that long to make a road into town, and then the bulldozer was invented.
A person might say that a bulldozer is going to do the work of 1,000 people with shovels, so a bulldozer is going to put 1,000 people out of work. Well, that would be true if you still needed a short road that went from place to place. But wait a minute! Now that we have bulldozers, we can build super highways that span North America in a few years. We will more than multiply the opportunities for this. It’s not just going to replace what we used to do with literally backbreaking work.
There is the long term and the short term. There will be job displacement. In your scenario, people who dig ditches don’t necessarily know how to drive a bulldozer. Can we do anything to accelerate the adoption of high-tech jobs?
Do you know what we should do? We should create an organization that gives all these people the opportunity to break their unnecessary fear of technology. We should get the kids involved, and then their parents, their teachers, and the company people could all get involved.
What would you call this organization?
I think “FIRST”, For inspiration and recognition in science and technology. And then maybe we can bring the generations together in a fun, non-threatening environment. I thought it would be adults like engineers and scientists who would inspire kids, but after seeing it work I realize that it’s actually kids who inspire adults, teachers, parents and chefs of business.
In conversations around agtech robotics, I don’t think vertical farming gets mentioned enough. I guess that’s because it’s a bit of a niche market right now, compared to the more traditional farming world. But every vertical farming company I’ve spoken to (and I’ve spoken a lot over the past few years) has told me that robotics is an integral part of their plans.
It makes sense. Vertically stacked products are a bit difficult for humans to navigate and monitor. Computer vision systems and robotic pickers, on the other hand, can thrive in these environments. Even so, Bowery Farming’s acquisition of former Disrupt Battlefield competitor Traptic came as a surprise. Particularly because it represents a pivot for the Bay Area-based startup, which has so far focused on strawberry picking systems for the field.
“Starting today, Traptic’s technology will be exclusive to the Bowery Smart Indoor Farm Network,” Traptic co-founder and CEO Lewis Anderson told me. “We developed our technology to work in the harsh outdoor agricultural environment, and it will work even better indoors. Bowery will be the first indoor farming company to use this Traptic technology.
Traptic’s move away from the field comes at an interesting time for agtech robotics. The interest is certainly there, with farms across the United States facing labor shortages. This follows the extinction of Abundant and its subsequent (well, coming) relaunch under new ownership. The opportunity is definitely there for the right company. Of course, vertical farming is another exciting category, so it should be an exciting new home for the Traptic team.
There was a big funding round for Tel Aviv-based Exodigo this week. The company uses drone- or cart-mounted sensors to map areas underground for things like construction, mining, and utilities.
“Ending the era of blind digging, Exodigo gives companies an accurate and easy-to-understand map of what lies below the surface, saving their teams time, money and effort. lives,” co-founder and CEO Jeremy Suard said in a statement. . “Think of it as combining the scanning power of an MRI, CT scan and ultrasound into a single image of what lies beneath the ground.”
Exodigo announced this morning a round of financing of 29 million dollars (!). The funding will be used to pilot its technology in states like California, Florida and Texas.
If sidewalk robots are your thing, Rebecca has a chat with Cartken co-founder and COO Anjali Jindal Naik, which details the start-up of the young company and some of her broader thoughts on the state of delivery of the latest kilometer :
We certainly use our operators in early deployments and to map areas as well, and that just helps us deploy faster. It’s one of those things where we can drop a robot in an area today and operate it tomorrow. We can do these things very quickly and, at the same time, increase the autonomy to start driving, move it semi-autonomously and bring it into a fully autonomous state by having the operators do it for us.
Following its recent launch of a crowdfunded E-Series, Miso Robotics announced this week a dramatic expansion of its partnership with White Castle. The deal will bring its Flippy 2 burger-cooking robotic arm to 100 locations.
Congratulations, you’ve read all 1,800 words this week. It’s definitely time to sign up for this free weekly robotics newsletter.