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Main article: Savioke

All topics: 5

Disney puts a new spin on its accelerator

19:12 | 11 July

Over the past few years, Disney’s accelerator classes have been transitioning away from what was once a roughly standard early-stage growth framework. Rather than the “adopt-a-company” models prevalent among most accelerators, it has been leaning hard into how it can create mutually beneficial relationships with companies that run the gamut from well-established to really just beginning.

The latest class, announced today, really shows how far the model has evolved beyond its early partnerships with Techstars. The press release that came along with the list rightly calls out Sphero as a success story from its last batch. The little-robot-company-that-could had been making a very cool controllable ball for a while but had struggled to really latch into the customer consciousness.

Disney was able to lend its IP (as well as senior executive and storyteller staff) to the company — a relationship that resulted in the smash hit BB-8 bot.

That mashing together of unique talent with Disney’s storytelling, IP, incredibly horizontal org and deep executive talent pool as advisers makes its accelerator one of the more unique programs operating in the startup space. Especially now that it is solidly differentiating its approach from the rest of the pack.

Some of the opportunities are obvious. The VOID is one of a small group of companies making a strong go at creating VR experiences in physical anchor spaces – an effort to drive traffic and create a movie-like experience. Unlike most of VR, this sector is having some kind of commercial success. That experience plus Disney IP seems like an interesting bet.

The aXiomatic selection is smart because ESPN is a hop and a skip away from esports. Epic being included here just means an embarrassment of riches — it’s got a great thing going already but there’s a lot of plussing that could happen.

Others are more oblique – Brit + Co is a media and goods company, and Hoodline is a hyper-local news and analysis company. But given that I saw a Hoodline mentioned on a local ABC affiliate a few weeks back, I think I can see where that is going.

(Hoodline was co-founded by former TechCrunch co-editor Eric Eldon, but he wouldn’t tell me what they’re up to yet. Too much media training probably.)

I’m very interested to see how some of the companies in this eclectic grouping will capitalize on the relationship with Disney. Here’s the full group of companies this batch (descriptions are Disney’s).

Ambidio

An innovative sound company that creates a continuous sound field with a sense of depth and dimension through any device with stereo speakers, bringing an immersive sound experience to everyone.

aXiomatic

A broad-based esports company built by leading sports team owners with ownership interests in esports teams and esports content distribution. The company has a majority stake in Team Liquid, a top esports team in the US and Europe with 60 pro players, coaches, and analysts competing in nine games as well as a minority stake in Super League Gaming.

Brit + Co

A digital media company that inspires, educates and entertains real women with a creative spirit. Through inspirational content, online classes, and products, Brit + Co enables their audience of over 125 million to use creativity to shape their best lives.

Epic Games

Creators of Unreal Engine technology, which is used by millions of developers to ship visually stunning, high-quality games and experiences across PC, console, mobile, VR and AR platforms. Developers also choose Epic’s Unreal Engine for cinematic production, visualization, design and simulation. Epic is known for creating the Unreal, Gears of War and Infinity Blade series of games, as well as newer titles such as Fortnite, Paragon and Robo Recall.

Hoodline

A local news and content discovery platform, that uses machine learning to distribute geotagged and relevant content from hundreds of media partners into websites or mobile apps. Hoodline also analyzes data sets to unlock insights for businesses and media companies.

Kahoot!

A game-based learning platform with more than 50 million monthly active users in 180 countries. Kahoot! makes it easy to create, discover, play, and share fun learning games in minutes—for any subject, in any language, on any device, for all ages.

ProductionPro

A tool for storytellers and creators focused on improving creative collaboration in Film, TV, and Theatre production. ProductionPro pulls scripts, research, designs, and continuity together to empower creative decision-making.

ReplyYes

A frictionless e-commerce over mobile messaging experience: customers simply reply “YES” to buy the product and have it delivered.

Samba TV

A data and analytics company providing essential television insights by leveraging a source of real-time, opt-in viewership data across broadcast, cable TV, OTT, and digital media. Through software integrations with smart TV manufacturers, Samba recognizes content and associated viewership patterns making TV audiences more addressable and measurable while helping marketers activate cross-screen campaigns and maximize their impact.

Savioke

A robotics company that develops and deploys autonomous indoor delivery robots that work alongside people in busy environments such as hotels, logistics facilities, and high-rise apartment buildings. The company’s flagship product, Relay, is an autonomous delivery robot that is already installed in dozens of hotels worldwide.

The VOID

A location-based entertainment company that fully immerses guests in virtual experiences with friends and family, engaging all of their senses. The VOID combines interactive sets, virtual reality, real-time effects, and state of the art technology to bring guests into their experience.

Featured Image: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

 


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Judah vs. the Machines: In which a robot services a hotel room

20:00 | 28 May

Robots remain a rare sight outside of labs in most of the world, but in Silicon Valley, they have already started taking on service jobs. In this episode of Judah vs. the Machines, Judah visits the Crowne Plaza hotel in San Jose to check out Relay, a hotel service robot that can autonomously bring guests food and other necessities.

After poking Relay’s creator, Steve Cousins, about equal pay for robots, Judah decides to compete head-to-head to see whether a machine can actually best a human at hospitality. The hotel arranges a competitive delivery challenge to see if Relay can secure higher service ratings from guests. And while robots are a long way from running hotels by themselves, Relay has the advantage of being fast, quiet and unconcerned with tips.

Outside of hospitality, Cousins’ company, Savioke, also puts its robots to use in research labs and industrial facilities where specialty items are needed on a moments notice. Relay and all of its brethren are on track to take up service jobs at new hotels in the near future, though, for now, they only operate well in environments that tend not to change much — this is one place where humans still hold an ace card.

See all eight episodes of Judah vs. the Machines here.

 


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Is a “robot tax” really an “innovation penalty”?

19:30 | 22 April

When Bill Gates recently suggested robots should pay income tax like any other employee, I didn’t immediately disagree. I applaud Gates’ bold thinking to help solve one of society’s biggest upcoming challenges: embracing automation in a way that “lifts all boats” instead of leaving large swaths of society behind.

A robot tax would help offset the reduced revenues flowing into public coffers as machines take some jobs previously held by humans.

However, before we start taxing companies that deploy robotics, let’s first agree on what a robot actually is.

When we think of robots, we typically conjure up images of giant arms building cars on an assembly line, or autonomous delivery vehicles ferrying goods around warehouses. But the classic definition of a robot is fairly simple: a combination of technologies that together sense, evaluate, and act to carry out a defined task.

The problem with this definition is that it’s so broad, it would categorize almost all technology – including most modern household appliances, computers, and smartphones – as robots. So where do we draw the line? Indeed, why single out robots to be taxed and not other technology that increases automation, productivity, or quality?

Is the technology that translates a surgeon’s hand movements into more precise movements of tiny instruments considered a robot? How about an ATM, an automated grocery checkout station, or a refrigerator that tells you when you need milk?

We could narrow the definition of a robot to include only those machines that do tasks once done by a human, but then we’d have to include Microsoft’s vast hardware and software offerings, since computers do things like word processing, transcribing, calculating mathematical formulas, and analyzing data – all of which used to be human tasks.

When you think of all the once-human tasks now done by machines, it quickly becomes clear how difficult it would be to separate certain automation technologies into the  “robot” category.  And if a robot tax was imposed, why wouldn’t a company simply classifying their new automation technology as “computers”, “appliances” or “equipment”?

Of course, implementing a robot tax wouldn’t just be difficult due to the challenge of defining what is and isn’t a robot. It would also be nearly impossible to prove a direct correlation between the implementation of automation technology and the net loss of jobs. In some rare instances, a company might deploy an automation device and then simultaneously lay off a person. But most companies don’t operate like this.

They continually deploy new technologies to improve productivity, laying off some workers while hiring others. In fact, if a robot causes one person to lose a job, perhaps three new people will be hired – one to run the robot and two others because the robot improves overall productivity, allowing for expansion hiring.

In reality, robots, like most automation, help people be more efficient and productive, rather than replace them. That’s been the case for centuries. A study of census data in England and Wales since 1871 found technology created far more jobs than it destroyed during that 140-year period. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labor than at any time in the last 150 years,” says the Deloitte report.

When Gates talks about a robot tax, in essence, he’s talking about financially penalizing companies that deploy the latest automation technology — a sort of “innovation tax” — which, to me, is a backward tax.

Shouldn’t our government support companies that embrace innovation in an effort to improve productivity and boost revenues? That’s what will make the US economy strong and competitive on a global scale.

Perhaps a better way to ensure that automation improves the lives of all citizens — instead of becoming a wedge that creates a bigger and bigger divide between the haves and have-nots — is to ensure corporations pay tax on their profits.

The more profitable a company becomes due to automation and increased productivity, the more income taxes it should pay into the collective system. Of course, closing loopholes that allow US corporations to dodge taxes will be difficult, but it’s critical to the long-term health of the global economy.

Getting companies to pay their fair share of taxes won’t solve the larger societal challenge that automation will eventually displace low-skilled workers, nor would a robot tax. Instead, governments should focus on using corporate tax revenues to create free or low-cost education programs to prepare people to work alongside automation.

For those unable to find work in tomorrow’s tech-driven society, governments could provide universal basic income or other safety nets for the least-advantaged.

There are no easy answers to the growing divide between rich and poor, which will only accelerate in an automated age that leaves unskilled workers at a distinct disadvantage. But a robot tax is not the answer to this problem.

Featured Image: Paper Boat Creative/Getty Images

 


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Room-service robots — and that’s just the start

23:00 | 12 December

Ramamurthy Sivakumar Crunch Network Contributor

Ramamurthy Sivakumar is a vice president and managing director at Intel Capital. He oversees investments in immersive sports, healthcare and perceptual computing.

How to join the network

At a popular hotel nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, two long-separated technologies came together not long ago — all in the name of toothpaste.

A small robot, outfitted with 3D cameras, was loaded up with a bath kit, a newspaper and a spare towel. It then took the supplies, rolled out of the lobby, called for the elevator and delivered the items to a guest room. Since this demo last fall, a fleet of Relay robots made by Savioke, a company in our investment portfolio, has made more than 50,000 similar deliveries in six cities across North America.

The results of this field test answered a very important question for us as longtime technology investors: What happens when you give a general-purpose computer chip a high-resolution view of its environment and the ability to react to what it sees?

Turns out you create a brand-new industry.

Vertically integrated, function-specific robots that can perceive their environments are able to handle repetitive tasks, learn to do new ones, be available at all hours and be serviced and upgraded easily. Think of a lawn mower that can cut grass by itself. Or a robotic companion able to find, fetch and carry items from a grocery shelf for an elderly shopper — even if the store has moved the items to different shelves.

These kinds of devices are at the forefront of a wave of machines with the potential to work with greater autonomy, at a lower cost, in everything from hospitality and retail to package delivery and situational monitoring. And they are creating investment opportunities in technologies across all these markets — and more.

In other words, room-service robots are just the start of something much bigger.

A Roomba with a (much better) view

The potential, and desire, for autonomous home and work devices has existed for some time. Remember the Roomba vacuum? Introduced in 2002, its parent company has sold more than 14 million home robots worldwide.

What’s been missing, until now, is a way to accelerate this concept — specifically, a cost-effective ability for a machine to have a high-resolution awareness of its environment, or of its owner’s visual cues, and take action in real time.

The combination of 3D cameras, real-time processors and machine learning is poised to make an impact that is broader and deeper.

Traditionally, environmental awareness has been the province of expensive machine-vision systems. But with the advent of high-quality 3D cameras, less expensive devices have the potential to recognize their surroundings with far greater precision than ever.

Combine these cameras with faster processors and machine-learning algorithms, and it’s now possible to create function-specific robots pre-loaded with gesture recognition, knowledge of common navigational challenges and cultural behaviors (not getting onto a crowded elevator, for example) and the ability to routinely update that understanding.

Broad, and deep, impact

If it seems you’ve heard about these abilities before — greater autonomy, better intelligence, an ever-expanding knowledge base — it’s because you have. Those same traits are the hallmark of new industries built around self-driving cars and drones.

But the combination of 3D cameras, real-time processors and machine learning is poised to make an impact that is broader and deeper.

Greater camera resolution, for example, will enable drones to work with greater precision and safety. Imagine one that can fly through a city or across rugged terrain to deliver packages while seeing clearly enough to avoid antennas and birds — and even change its route automatically if first responders need to clear the airspace.

We’re already seeing these kinds of capabilities from an array of companies, such as Mitsui-backed Aethon, whose TUG robots navigate busy hospital corridors to deliver everything from patient meals to blood samples for lab analysis. To date, these robots have traveled more than 1 million miles and made more than 19 million deliveries.

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JustEat is now delivering takeout with self-driving robots in the UK Alexa can now clean a floor with Neato’s robot vacuum Pepper the robot will be helping out shoppers at two Bay Area shopping centers this holiday Why iRobot's Colin Angle thinks the smart home starts with a robot vacuum

Real-time processing could be a great fit in a number of other environments, including retail. Consider a robot that rolls up and down the aisles of a big-box store to check inventory: It could count the stock and order new items automatically, in a fraction of the time it would take a conventional floor staff. Fetch Robotics and Fellow Robots are now developing and testing products in these areas. Meanwhile, Starship Technologies — launched by the co-founders of Skype — just announced it will use robots to deliver groceries in Washington, DC this fall.

As for machine learning, possibilities abound on land and below it. Rugged robots could roam volcano craters, and submersible vehicles could patrol rivers — both armed with historic data and algorithms to identify potential eruptions or the telltale signs of industrial pollution. Agriculture is another key market, with companies such as India’s GRoboMac building specialized machinery for harvesting cotton using 3D cameras and machine-learning systems.

When you consider this feedback loop — the collection of high-resolution visual data, the ability to process it quickly and the fuel it provides to create even deeper-learning algorithms — it’s reasonable to consider tackling what are now extremely expensive and difficult endeavors. Think about mapping the ocean floor, or assessing the health of landscapes, crops or animal populations with greater precision and detail.

These activities are the predictable outcome of putting function-specific robots to use. What’s more, when coupled with machine- and deep-learning technologies, they will form the essential building blocks of general-purpose robotics platforms that will be more flexible and can be adapted for multiple uses.

For the moment, you might want to check the front door… there may be a grocery delivery waiting.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

 


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Led By Ex-CEO Of Willow Garage, Savioke Gets $2M From AME, Google Ventures To Build A ‘Service’ Robot

16:31 | 9 April
SaviokePortraits-137 Savioke, a robotics startup out of Sunnyvale led by the former CEO of the now-defunct but influential Willow Garage robotics startup, is announcing a seed round of funding today, $2 million from Jerry Yang's AME Cloud Ventures, Google Ventures, Morado Venture Partners and other individual investors. It is planning to use the money to develop and build its first robot, an as-yet unnamed piece of… Read More


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