Florian Pestoni On The Future of Robotics Over the Next Few Years
An Interview With David Leichner
…There’s a robot for that — if not, go make one. It’s now easier, faster and cheaper to build a robot or a robotic solution than it’s ever been. The most successful robots perform highly specialized tasks. Find a problem in the physical world with repeatability, understand the problem in-depth, then create a robot to carry out that task
With the shortage of labor, companies are now looking at how robots can replace some of the lost labor force. See here for example. The truth is that this is not really a novel idea, as companies like Amazon have been using robots for a while now. What can we expect to see in the robotics industry over the next few years? How will robots be used? What kinds of robots are being produced? To what extent can robots help address the shortage of labor? Which jobs can robots replace, and which jobs need humans? In our series called “The Future Of Robotics Over The Next Few Years” we are talking to leaders of Robotics companies, AI companies, and Hi-Tech Manufacturing companies who can address these questions and share insights from their experience. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Florian Pestoni.
Florian Pestoni is the co-founder and CEO of InOrbit, the leading robot operations platform for autonomy orchestration. With over 15 years’ of experience leading products at SaaS startups and public companies including Facebook, Microsoft and Adobe, Florian’s passion is to bring a data-driven, product-centric approach to robot operations. At InOrbit, he drives the company’s vision that humans, robots, and AI working together can overcome our global challenges to positively impact the lives of billions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in robotics?
To be honest, I blame my co-founder. Julian Cerruti, InOrbit’s CTO, has been in the robotics space for over a decade. He was part of Willow Garage, a well known research group that originated or popularized many of the technologies we see in use today such as ROS (Robot Operating System). After Willow was shut down, Julian worked with many of the companies taking these technologies from research to commercial deployment. He ended up creating the same solutions from scratch many times.
When the two of us started chatting, I didn’t know anything about robotics. My background was in very high-scale cloud products used by hundreds of millions of users. As I started looking into robotics, I was actually taken aback by how primitive the tools for managing robots outside the lab were. It reminded me of the world before the cloud — which of course I had only read about in history books (ahem.)
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In a previous venture, I was working on a digital health solution for chronic care management. The idea was to use devices for data collection, keep track of key health indicators over time, and then provide smaller interventions to help keep people healthy without having to go to the hospital.
Years later, as I started working on what would eventually become InOrbit, I had a moment of insight: what companies needed was “digital health” for robots. I love it when seemingly disconnected parts of one’s career come together in unexpected ways.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
At InOrbit, we are the leaders in a new product category called RobOps. Just like DevOps has enabled the incredible growth we’ve seen in the cloud, RobOps is enabling robot operations at scale. The coolest part is that we get to work with all these great robotics companies who are working at the leading edge of AI and help them focus on what they do best.
How do you think this might change the world?
Our goal is to maximize the potential of every robot. We envision a world where humans, robots and AI work together to drive radical productivity improvements and enable people to reach new heights. There is a new generation of smart robots that are addressing humanity’s needs, from food production to delivery and from manufacturing to supply chain management. These robots can improve the lives of a billion people.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I realize that there is a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt about robotics. However, a lot of this is more based on sci-fi than reality.
Here’s a way to put things in perspective: More than 38,000 people die every year in crashes on U.S. roadways and 4.4 million are injured seriously enough to require medical attention. There have been 33 deaths caused by industrial robots over the past 30 years.
Admittedly, robots have come a really long way and are now a lot more capable than earlier versions. But what people may not realize is how incredibly limited these robots really are. They can carry out simple tasks. On a good day. And under fairly narrow operating conditions. They don’t “think”. There won’t be a robot uprising — but just in case I got this all wrong, I for one welcome our robot overlords
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the robotics industry?
5. The convergence of different technologies making robots better, smarter and cheaper.
4. The range of problems being tackled by robotics companies.
3. Investments driving exponential growth.
2. Improvements in robot orchestration.
1. The roboverse™ — all the robots connected to the cloud working together.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the robotics industry?
5. Baseless FUD about robotics.
4. High financing costs for Robotics-as-a-Service.
3. Robot solutions looking for a problem.
2. Lack of best practices for operating robots at scale.
1. Robotics companies reinventing the wheel.
As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the potential to pose a danger to humanity in the future. What is your position about this?
I think there is a lot of confusion and hype, and some people are stoking the debate for their own benefit. In sci-fi stories, “an AI” is like an all-powerful digital person, with emotions, self-awareness and sentience. I don’t rule out that perhaps one day this could become a reality, but almost all of what is currently understood as AI is much more mundane, usually focused on pattern recognition. There are some real harms that can come from that, e.g. from bias in the training set, but it’s usually not what people fear most.
My expertise is in product security, so I’m particularly interested in this question. In today’s environment, hackers break into the software running the robotics, for ransomware, to damage brands or for other malicious purposes. Based on your experience, what should manufacturing companies do to uncover vulnerabilities in the development process to safeguard their robotics?
I have a background in security and cryptography as well. In security, as you know, it’s important to understand the threat vectors and take steps to mitigate issues when they occur. The correct stance is “when” not “if”. In recent years, the best practices for security are around something called DevSecOps, which values speed of detection and response. However, many companies are still stuck in the old ways: they think that by limiting connectivity they will improve security, when in fact they are limiting the ability for a team to respond in a timely manner. In the case of robotics this requires even more attention, as security risks can become safety risks as well.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Robotics Industry?
5. There are many paths to robotics; find yours
Successful development and deployment of robots requires the alignment of many disciplines including mechanical and electrical engineering, software development, AI, data, sensors, cloud, human-robot interaction (HRI), UX design, marketing, sales, etc.
4. There’s a robot for that — if not, go make one
It’s now easier, faster and cheaper to build a robot or a robotic solution than it’s ever been. The most successful robots perform highly specialized tasks. Find a problem in the physical world with repeatability, understand the problem in-depth, then create a robot to carry out that task.
3. Robots don’t need to be perfect, and neither do you
Often times people exclude themselves from a selection process because they don’t meet *all* the requirements. Here’s a secret: nobody does. With a solid base, positive attitude and a growth mindset, people can join and make a positive impact while also developing skills on the job.
2. You don’t need a Ph.D. to get involved in robotics
Robots in the real world don’t work in isolation; they work alongside people, and often rely on humans to continue to operate. Increasingly people will work alongside robots.
1. Become a roboteer
I coined the term roboteer to refer to people who support the operation of robots in the real world, often through remote monitoring and interventions. Using products like InOrbit, you don’t need to be an expert to be a robot boss. High school graduates can handle a dozen or more robots at a time with limited training. I think this is one of the coolest jobs out there to get started in robotics.
As you know, there are not that many women in this industry. Can you advise what is needed to engage more women in the robotics industry?
Let me start by saying that there are many amazing women in robotics, including in engineering, design, HRI, product, sales and executive roles. They’re out there and we definitely want to highlight them as they will inspire other women.
As I mentioned before, there are many paths to robotics. As robots become widespread in virtually every industry, it will broaden their appeal and will require people with expertise in many areas. Making robots more accessible requires understanding many different perspectives, so it’s important to increase the cognitive diversity of the people who design and operate robots.
Individual companies can also take an active interest in reducing their own barriers to having women as part of the team. At InOrbit, our product team includes female engineers and designers. This is a core part of our efforts on creating a diverse workforce with a welcoming culture.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We’ve started a movement we call RobOps, with a growing community of people from various disciplines. My company, InOrbit, attracts people who are motivated by being part of this change. Our shared belief is that people, robots and AI together can help humanity overcome some of our biggest challenges. Our big, hairy and audacious goal (BHAG) is to help 1 million robots positively impact the lives of a billion people.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
These days I’m most active on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/florianpestoni) and my company’s blog (inorbit.ai/blog/author/florian). I also run a series of interviews for the Robot Operations Group (robops.org/interviews) and write for the Forbes Technology Council (forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/people/florianpestoni), appear on podcasts, guest write articles in various magazines and occasionally go back to Medium (florianp.medium.com)
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: David Leichner is a veteran of the Israeli high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications. At Cybellum, a leading provider of Product Security Lifecycle Management, David is responsible for creating and executing the marketing strategy and managing the global marketing team that forms the foundation for Cybellum’s product and market penetration. Prior to Cybellum, David was CMO at SQream and VP Sales and Marketing at endpoint protection vendor, Cynet. David is the Chairman of the Friends of Israel and Member of the Board of Trustees of the Jerusalem Technology College. He holds a BA in Information Systems Management and an MBA in International Business from the City University of New York.