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Main article: Robotics

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New system connects your mind to a machine to help stop mistakes

19:01 | 20 June

How do you tell your robot not do something that could be catastrophic? You could give it a verbal or programmatic command or you could have it watch your brain for signs of distress and have it stop itself. That’s what researchers at MIT’s robotics research lab have done with a system that is wired to your brain and tells robots how to do their job.

The initial system is fairly simple. A scalp EEG and EMG system is connected to a Baxter work robot and lets a human wave or gesture when the robot is doing something that it shouldn’t be doing. For example, the robot could regularly do a task – drilling holes, for example – but when it approaches an unfamiliar scenario the human can gesture at the task that should be done.

“By looking at both muscle and brain signals, we can start to pick up on a person’s natural gestures along with their snap decisions about whether something is going wrong,” said PhD candidate Joseph DelPreto. “This helps make communicating with a robot more like communicating with another person.”

Because the system uses nuances like gestures and emotional reactions you can train robots to interact with humans with disabilities and even prevent accidents by catching concern or alarm before it is communicated verbally. This lets workers stop a robot before it damages something and even help the robot understand slight changes to its tasks before it begins.

In their tests the team trained Baxter to drill holes in an airplane fuselage. The task changed occasionally and a human standing nearby was able to gesture to the robot to change position before it drilled, essentially training it to do new tasks in the midst of its current task. Further, there was no actual programming involved on the human’s part, just a suggestion that the robot move the drill left or right on the fuselage. The most important thing? Humans don’t have to think in a special way or train themselves to interact with the machine.

“What’s great about this approach is that there’s no need to train users to think in a prescribed way,” said DelPreto. “The machine adapts to you, and not the other way around.”

The team will present their findings at the Robotics: Science and Systems (RSS) conference.

 


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Execs from DJI, 3DR and Skydio to discuss drones at Disrupt F 2018

19:21 | 18 June

Just how big are drones? According to Gartner, industry revenue topped $6 billion last year and is on-track to hit $11.2 by 2020. Unmanned aerial vehicles are a huge industry with a broad swath of applications, from hobbyists to agriculture to the military.

At Disrupt SF in September, we’ll be bringing together executives from some of the biggest names in the industry, including enterprise drone software maker 3D Robotics, startup Skydio and the industry leader in commercial and consumer drones, DJI.

Chris Anderson is the CEO of 3DR, the creator of drone analytics enterprise software platform Site Scan. Prior to cofounding the company as a resource for drone hobbyists, Anderson was the long-time editor-in-chief of Wired. 3DR was an early entrant into the consumer drone space but recently left the market and started building software for commercial drone use.

Adam Bry is the found and CEO of Skydio, a Bay Area-based startup that has generated considerable excitement — and funding — with a drone that sports impressive motional tracking for action shots. Bry is a graduate of MIT’s CSAIL program, who previous worked on Google’s Project Wing fixed-wing drone program.

Arnaud Thiercelin is the head of US R&D for DJI. DJI overwhelming dominates making and selling drones and Thiercelin leads teams tasked with implementing technology for developers and enterprise.

We’re excited to have these industry leaders speak at Disrupt. There are countless opportunities in the drone space right now and these leaders are best positioned to discuss to the challenges facing founders entering the market.

Disrupt is September 5-7 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Get your tickets today.

 


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VCs serve up a large helping of cash to startups disrupting food

21:11 | 16 June

Here is what your daily menu might look like if recently funded startups have their way.

You’ll start the day with a nice, lightly caffeinated cup of cheese tea. Chase away your hangover with a cold bottle of liver-boosting supplement. Then slice up a few strawberries, fresh-picked from the corner shipping container.

Lunch is full of options. Perhaps a tuna sandwich made with a plant-based, tuna-free fish. Or, if you’re feeling more carnivorous, grab a grilled chicken breast fresh from the lab that cultured its cells, while crunching on a side of mushroom chips. And for extra protein, how about a brownie?

Dinner might be a pizza so good you send your compliments to the chef — only to discover the chef is a robot. For dessert, have some gummy bears. They’re high in fiber with almost no sugar.

Sound terrifying? Tasty? Intriguing? If you checked tasty and intriguing, then here is some good news: The concoctions highlighted above are all products available (or under development) at food and beverage startups that have raised venture and seed funding this past year.

These aren’t small servings of capital, either. A Crunchbase News analysis of venture funding for the food and beverage category found that startups in the space gobbled up more than $3 billion globally in disclosed investment over the past 12 months. That includes a broad mix of supersize deals, tiny seed rounds and everything in-between.

Spending several hours looking at all these funding rounds leaves one with a distinct sense that eating habits are undergoing a great deal of flux. And while we can’t predict what the menu of the future will really hold, we can highlight some of the trends. For this initial installment in our two-part series, we’ll start with foods. Next week, we’ll zero in on beverages.

Chickenless nuggets and fishless tuna

For protein lovers disenchanted with commercial livestock farming, the future looks good. At least eight startups developing plant-based and alternative proteins closed rounds in the past year, focused on everything from lab meat to fishless fish to fast-food nuggets.

New investments add momentum to what was already a pretty hot space. To date, more than $600 million in known funding has gone to what we’ve dubbed the “alt-meat” sector, according to Crunchbase data. Actual investment levels may be quite a bit higher since strategic investors don’t always reveal round size.

In recent months, we’ve seen particularly strong interest in the lab-grown meat space. At least three startups in this area — Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Wild Type — raised multi-million dollar rounds this year. That could be a signal that investors have grown comfortable with the concept, and now it’s more a matter of who will be early to market with a tasty and affordable finished product.

Makers of meatless versions of common meat dishes are also attracting capital. Two of the top funding recipients in our data set include Seattle Food Tech, which is working to cost-effectively mass-produce meatless chicken nuggets, and Good Catch, which wants to hook consumers on fishless seafoods. While we haven’t sampled their wares, it does seem like they have chosen some suitable dishes to riff on. After all, in terms of taste, both chicken nuggets and tuna salad are somewhat removed from their original animal protein sources, making it seemingly easier to sneak in a veggie substitute.

Robot chefs

Another trend we saw catching on with investors is robot chefs. Modern cooking is already a gadget-driven process, so it’s not surprising investors see this as an area ripe for broad adoption.

Pizza, the perennial takeout favorite, seems to be a popular area for future takeover by robots, with at least two companies securing rounds in recent months. Silicon Valley-based Zume, which raised $48 million last year, uses robots for tasks like spreading sauce and moving pies in and out of the oven. France’s EKIM, meanwhile, recently opened what it describes as a fully autonomous restaurant staffed by pizza robots cooking as customers watch.

Salad, pizza’s healthier companion side dish, is also getting roboticized. Just this week, Chowbotics, a developer of robots for food service whose lineup includes Sally the salad robot, announced an $11 million Series A round.

Those aren’t the only players. We’ve put together a more complete list of recently launched or funded robot food startups here.

Beyond sugar

Sugar substitutes aren’t exactly a new area of innovation. Diet Rite, often credited as the original diet soda, hit the market in 1958. Since then, we’ve had 60 years of mass-marketing for low-calorie sweeteners, from aspartame to stevia.

It’s not over. In recent quarters, we’ve seen a raft of funding rounds for startups developing new ways to reduce or eliminate sugar in many of the foods we’ve come to love. On the dessert and candy front, Siren Snacks and SmartSweets are looking to turn favorite indulgences like brownies and gummy bears into healthy snack options.

The quest for good-for-you sugar also continues. The latest funding recipient in this space appears to be Bonumuse, which is working to commercialize two rare sugars, Tagatose and Allulose, as lower-calorie and potentially healthier substitutes for table sugar. We’ve compiled a list of more sugar-reduction-related startups here.

Where is it all headed?

It’s tough to tell which early-stage food startups will take off and which will wind up in the scrap bin. But looking in aggregate at what they’re cooking up, it looks like the meal of the future will be high in protein, low in sugar and prepared by a robot.

 


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Teaching computers to plan for the future

00:54 | 16 June

As humans, we’ve gotten pretty good at shaping the world around us. We can choose the molecular design of our fruits and vegetables, travel faster and further and stave off life threatening diseases with personalized medical care. However, what continues to elude our molding grasp is the airy notion of “time” – how to see further than our present moment, and ultimately how to make the most of it. As it turns out, robots might be the ones who can answer this question.

Computer scientists from the University of Bonn in Germany wrote this week that they were able to design a software that could predict a sequence of events up to five minutes in the future with accuracy between 15 and 40 percent. These values might not seem like much on paper, but researcher Dr. Juergen Gall says it represents a step toward a new area of machine learning that goes beyond single step prediction.

Although Gall’s goal of teaching a system how to understand a sequence of events is not new (after all, this is a primary focus of the fields of machine learning and computer vision) it is unique in its approach. Thus far, research in these fields has focused on the interpretation of a current action or the prediction of an anticipated next action. This was seen recently in the news when a paper from Stanford AI researchers reported designing an algorithm that could achieve up to 90 percent accuracy in its predictions regarding end-of-life care.

When researchers provided the algorithm with data from over two million palliative care patient records, it was able to analyze patterns in the data and predict when the patient would pass with high levels of accuracy. However, unlike Gall’s research, this algorithm focused on a retrospective, single prediction.

Accuracy itself is a contested question in the field of machine learning. While it appears impressive on paper to report accuracies ranging upwards of 90 percent, there is debate about the over-inflation of these values through cherry picking “successful” data in a process called p-hacking.

In their experiment, Gall and his team used hours of video data demonstrating different cooking actions (e.g. frying an egg or tossing a salad) and presented the software with only portions of the action and tasked it with predicting the remaining sequence based on what it had “learned.” Through their approach, Gall hopes the field can take a step closer to true human-machine symbiosis.

“[In the industry] people talk about human robot collaboration but in the end there’s still a separation; they’re not really working close together,” says Gall.

Instead of only reacting or anticipating, Gall proposes that, with a proper hardware body, this software could help human workers in industrial settings by intuitively knowing the task and helping them complete it. Even more, Gall sees a purpose for this technology in a domestic setting as well.

“There are many older people and there’s efforts to have this kind of robot for care at home,” says Gall. “In ten years I’m very convinced that service robots [will] support care at home for the elderly.”

The number of Americans over the age of 65 today is approximately 46 million, according to a Population Reference Bureau report, and is predicted to double by the year 2060. Of that population, roughly 1.4 million live in nursing homes according to a 2014 CDC report. The impact that an intuitive software like Gall’s could have has been explored in Japan, where just over one fourth of the country’s population is elderly. From Paro, a soft, robotic therapy seal, to the sleek companion robot Pepper from SoftBank Robotics, Japan is beginning to embrace the calm, nurturing assistance of these machines.

With this advance in technology for the elderly also comes the bitter taste that perhaps these technologies will only create further divide between the generations – outsourcing love and care to a machine. For a yet mature industry it’s hard to say where this path with conclude, but ultimately that is in the hands of developers to decide, not the software or robots they develop. These machines may be getting better at predicting the future, but even to them their fates are still being coded.

 


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Sphero raises $12M as it focuses on education

00:50 | 14 June

This year has been a rough one for Sphero. The Colorado-based toy robotics startup kicked off the year with dozens of layoffs, a result of tepid interest in its line of Disney-branded consumer products.

Here’s a little good news, however. The company has raised another $12 million, bringing its total up to around $119 million, according to Crunchbase. The latest round will go into helping shape the BB-8 maker into an education-first company.

“The recent round of funding has currently raised $12 million, and we anticipate at the time of final closing up to $20 million may be raised in total,” Sphero said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. Funding has/will come from existing and new investors and will be used for working capital as we engage in a larger strategy that focuses on the intersection of play and learning.”

It’s a tricky play, given how overcrowded the world of coding toys is at the moment, but Sphero has long been building out its play in the space, in tandem with its more consumer-focused offerings.

Following the success of its The Force Awakens BB-8 tie in, the company quadrupled down on its involvement with Disney’s accelerator, releasing high-tech toys based on Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen from Cars.

“[Education] is something we can actually own,” the company told me after the layoffs were revealed. “Where we do well are those experiences we can 100 percent own, from inception to go-to-market.”

 


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Chowbotics raises $11 million to move its robot beyond salads

22:04 | 13 June

Creating a salad-making robot is pretty good, as far as tech company hooks go, but Chowbotics is looking to expand. The Bay Area company just raised $11 million in a “Series A-1” led by the Foundry Group and Techstars.

The big plan for the money largely involves extending the company’s selection of foodstuffs beyond leafy greens, where Sally the Salad Robot has made its mint. At the top of the list are grain bowls, breakfast bowls, poke bowls, açai bowls and yogurt bowls. If it’s food served in a bowl, Chowbotics seems interested.

Seems pretty straightforward, really. After all, at its core, Sally is a kind of vending machine, dropping different ingredients into the same bowl. Apparently it’s a bit more complicated than that, especially when you start mixing in things like yogurts and berry purees. “The major challenges are finding special technical solutions for dispensing different shapes and sizes of ingredients,” founder/CEO Deepak Sekar told TechCrunch.

The company is also using the funding to add a whole bunch of senior roles. Per the press release:

Warren Manzer, who was President of Foodservice at Clipper and Senior Vice President at Crown Brands, joined Chowbotics as Vice President of Foodservice Sales. Rory Bevins, who was Senior Vice President at La Bottega Americas and Global Vice President at Molton Brown, joined Chowbotics as Vice President of Hospitality. Lee Greer, who was Chief Marketing Officer at Jason’s Deli, joined Chowbotics as Vice President of its Off-Premise Kitchen Business Unit. Shelley Janes, who was Head of Partnerships at CarDash and CEO of SideDoor, joined Chowbotics as Director of Sales, responsible for the western region of the United States. Nolan Schachter, who was Director of Sales and Marketing at TeaBot, joined Chowbotics as Director of Sales, responsible for Canada.

The funding follows a $5 million Series A in March of last year.

 


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Build your own L3-37 droid complete with voice interaction

11:13 | 12 June

Robot maker Patrick Stefanski has created a 3D-printed – and animated – model of L3-37, the droid in the recent Solo movie. L3-37 is one of the funnest – and woks – droids in recent memory and this recreation is fun and ingenious.

Stefanski used Alexa voice controls to let the robot head respond to voice commands and he set the wake word to “Hey L3” to which the robot responds with a grumpy “What!”

The version you see above is painted and weathered but you can 3D print your own pristine version from here and then add in a Raspberry Pi and Arduino with a simple servo to control the head motion. In all it looks like a lot of fun and the hardest part will be printing all of the larger head parts necessary to recreate L3’s saucer-like dome.

It could make for a nice weekend project and looks to be surprisingly simple to build. Just don’t be surprised L3 rallies your DVR and air conditioner to revolt against attacks on droid rights.

 


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J.J. Abrams and Tencent combine to form Bad Robot Games

02:28 | 8 June

Bad Robot, the media production company headed by famed nostalgia-lord J.J. Abrams, is expanding into the games industry with help from Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent. The company will lend its expertise in film to partner developers at both the indie and AAA level.

“I’m a massive games fan, and increasingly envious of the amazing tools developers get to work with, and the worlds they get to play in,” explained Abrams in the partnership’s announcement. “Now we are doubling down on our commitment to the space with a unique co-development approach to game making that allows us to focus on what we do best, and hopefully be a meaningful multiplier to our developer partners.”

Designers, visual artists, and writers from Bad Robot will collaborate with developers, aiming at all game markets: PC, console, and mobile.

Tencent will presumably provide funding and clout, in exchange for commercial rights to distribution of resulting titles. That probably limits the new company from doing what Abrams is perhaps most famous for, rejuvenating aging franchises with a modern aesthetic and a great deal of lens flare. Many popular AAA franchises — think Call of Duty and Uncharted — are deeply tied to publishers in multi-year or perpetual exclusivity arrangements.

Abrams himself won’t be the head of the new endeavor; the reins will instead belong to Dave Baranoff, who has done the gaming and interactive content for Bad Robot for the last decade. This isn’t his first foray into the “real” games industry — he and Bad Robot are currently working with Epic and ChAIR on a mysterious title called Spyjinx. But it is presumably the start of something rather bigger than a one-off partnership or movie promotion.

Tim Keenan, who created the amazing Duskers, will be the creative director, which is a good sign.

No further announcements, such as a first project or development partner, were made — just the formation of the company. We may hear more during E3, though, so stay tuned.

 


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Self-driving robot delivery startup Starship Technologies raises $25 million

16:00 | 7 June

The robots are here and one company, Starship Technologies, has raised $25 million to bring even more to the mainstream. This latest round of funding includes a follow-on investment from Matrix Partners and Morpheus Ventures. New investors include Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk, Skype founding engineer Jaan Tallinn and others.

These autonomous robots can carry items, like groceries or packages, within a two-mile radius. The plan with the funding is to deploy Starship robots in neighborhoods, corporate and university campuses in both the U.S. and Europe.

Starship has also brought on former Airbnb business development lead Lex Bayer as chief executive officer.

“We are at the point where we are ready to start deploying our network of robots at scale,” Starship co-founder Janus Friis said in a statement. “This additional funding, and Lex’s appointment, will allow us to bring our services to market. Lex joins us with a proven track record of growing businesses that change the way we live for the better.”

But Starship is by no means the only company operating in this space. There’s Boxbot, a startup that recently received a permit to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver, and Nuro.

Starship has previously partnered with on-demand food delivery companies like DoorDash and Postmates to test out its robot delivery service. Last January, Starship partnered with the aforementioned companies for a pilot program in Redwood City, Calif. and Washington, D.C. To date, Starship robots have traveled more than 100,000 miles in 20 countries, across 100 cities.

Prior to this round, Starship raised $17.2 million in a seed round led by Mercedes-Benz Vans with participation from Shasta Ventures, Matrix Partners, ZX Venturers, Morpheus Ventures and others.

 


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Israeli autonomous technology developer Innoviz is entering China’s car market

13:34 | 6 June

Innoviz, a developer of light detection and ranging technologies for computer vision and autonomous vehicles, is getting a toehold in China, the world’s fastest growing auto market, through a partnership with the Chinese automotive supplier HiRain Technologies.

From offices in Beijing, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, Tianjin HiRain serves as a global supplier to some of China’s largest automakers and has already been a gateway to success for another Israeli company developing sensing technology for vehicle manufacturers — Mobileye .

That company has half of its business coming from China and has won 9 of its supplier agreements with different automakers in the country through its HiRain partnership, according to people with knowledge of the company.

For the three year old Innoviz, the opportunity to expand its list of suppliers to include one of China’s leaders was too good of an opportunity to pass up, said chief executive officer Omer Keilaf.

“China is helping lead the way towards the autonomous vehicle future, and HiRain is one of the most influential companies in the Chinese automotive industry. Last year, around 26 million vehicles were manufactured in China, making it by far the largest automotive manufacturing country in the world,” said Keilaf, in a statement. “The HiRain team has extensive experience with driver assistance and autonomous driving systems in China and we are honored to partner with them.”

It’s the latest in a series of strategic moves for Innoviz, which already counts Aptiv, Magna International and Samsung as its partners for supplying automakers in the U.S., Europe and other international markets. The company had its first win with BMW earlier this year, and will be providing LiDAR for the automakers autonomous vehicles in 2021.

“LiDAR is one of the most critical technologies for automated driving systems, and we partnered with Innoviz because not only is its technology more advanced than other LiDAR solution, but the company has proven it can deliver on its promises,” said Yingcun Ji, the chief executive of HiRain, in a statement. “Innoviz’s cutting-edge LiDAR will help us expand our leadership position within the Chinese automotive industry and continue to blaze a trail towards the autonomous driving future.”

The opportunity to expand driverless vehicle technologies in China extends far beyond the country’s established automakers like SAIC Motors, Chang’an Motors, FAW Group and Dongfeng Motor or more recent upstarts like Geely and BYD . Technology companies including Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu all have an interest in developing autonomous vehicles, and new electric car companies like Byton, Nio, WM Motor, and Xiaopeng Motors. Some of these new companies are counting on government subsidies of $8,400 per vehicle, to bring electric, autonomous technology to China’s congested and polluted streets.

Behind HiRain and its OEM relationships, Keilaf said there were as many as 20 other development programs that the company was exposed to in China.

“We are going to sell the LiDAR in this collaboration that will let us get to the volume to drive our process and get early revenues,” Keilaf said.

When it comes to autonomous vehicle standards, China is racing ahead, said Keilaf. The country wants to get to Level 3 autonomy in most of its vehicles by 2020 and level 4 autonomy in 2021.

As for other markets, like the U.S., Keilaf said the development of autonomous vehicles will continue to happen quickly, but in very specific markets. And that the growth wouldn’t be hindered by recent fatalities caused by failures in autonomous vehicle systems from Uber and Tesla (two companies that have been aggressively pushing driverless vehicle programs).

“It makes everybody understand better what is needed to make things the right way,” Keilaf said of the accidents. “The way I see it, autonomous driving will come soon. But autonomous driving is a very big term.”

For Keilaf, autonomy is going to appear in markets like the U.S. first in specific applications like shuttles around colleges, airports, or closed communities. Simultaneously some advanced autonomous technologies will take to the roads in the form of long haul convoys for shipping and logistics, and finally in industrial applications for agriculture and mining.

Founded in early 2016, Innoviz has over 150 employees worldwide and is backed by $82 million in venture funding.

 


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