Youssef Benmokhtar Of GelSight On The Future of Robotics Over the Next Few Years

An Interview With David Leichner

David Leichner, CMO at Cybellum
Authority Magazine

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Surround yourself with a community of thought leaders — I think it’s important to seek out partners, teammates, and advisors that all bring something new to your understanding of robotics.

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 Youssef Benmokhtar.

Youssef Benmokhtar is the CEO of GelSight. Prior to GelSight he worked at Magic Leap where he spearheaded the company’s business development and formed strategic partnerships with technology, media, and telecommunications firms. Prior to landing at Magic Leap, he held leadership positions for an array of imaging, optics, and semiconductor companies, including FotoNation, OmniVision Technologies, DigitalOptics, and STMicroelectronics. His leadership and deal-making abilities are complemented by his deep roots in engineering. Youssef has a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a master’s from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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?

Since I joined GelSight in mid 2021 and gained more of an appreciation for the importance of tactile sensing and tactile intelligence, it became even more apparent to me that robots largely do not leverage a sense of touch, at least in a human-like way. Roboticists have developed strong applications for robotic vision, force response, and other senses, except for touch. I wondered how much better robots could be, and what new applications could be unlocked if they were equipped with the tactile intelligence humans possess and could accomplish tasks that currently only humans can perform.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

A monumental moment in my career thus far was getting to work with Brian Weir, my boss at STMicroelectronics, who became a mentor and friend. He trusted my abilities, even more than I trusted myself at times. He was always there to provide support and help me achieve beyond what I thought I was capable of in my role. No one else has had such a significant impact on my career, and he helped shape the CEO and leader I am today, or at least work toward being each day. If I’m stuck in a tough situation, I still find myself thinking about what he would do if he was in my place, and his guidance greatly impacts my decision making and problem-solving skills today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I cannot remember where I heard this quote, but I often find myself repeating it in my head — There are two types of people. People who do things right — and people who do the right thing. I try to actively surround myself with both types of people, especially in the workplace. You really need both categories of people in your personal and professional community to achieve balance. It is easy to surround yourself with people who are more like you, but oftentimes, surrounding yourself with people who are different than you, helps you to get further as a group or a company.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

When it comes to robotics at GelSight, we are working on miniaturizing tactile sensors that can be easily integrated into the fingertip of a robotic hand. This is part of our R&D that I am very excited about. Ideally, our sensor will be able to provide rich, tactile information, think 3D imaging for pose estimation, force estimation, anti-slip capabilities, and much more, all of which are critical outputs that roboticists are currently interested in.

We recently hosted a webinar on the Future of Tactile Sensing in Robotics and AI with industry experts from Meta AI Research, Bosch and MIT. Since it aired, we have been fielding a lot of inquiries on how our technology can adapt to robotics applications. While GelSight might be more well-known in the aerospace and industrial spaces, many people who reach out to us do not realize we can deliver a version of our technology that can help achieve their specific goals. We are focused on miniaturizing our product and are very excited about the possible applications in the near future.

How do you think this might change the world?

Our technology can help provide a new sense of perception that robots do not have today and allow them to perform new tasks. Tactile intelligence will complement vision technology to provide robots with new, exciting capabilities, especially in industrial robotics. This would help give robots the ability to assemble complex or unknown parts or handle more dangerous tasks in a manufacturing setting. Outside of industrial applications, with higher tactile intelligence, robots could help you at home or for elderly care.

We have already kicked off a pilot program with Beyond Imagination, an AI and robotics platform company developing humanoid robots, to study the feasibility of using Beyond Imagination’s humanoid robotic technology to remotely operate GelSight’s tactile sensors.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I personally do not want robots to replace humans in the workforce. Robots should augment or enhance human capabilities by performing tasks that humans no longer want to do. Robots can handle the boring and repetitive tasks that many humans do not want to do, especially given the aging population and shortage of workers for certain roles.

What are the three things that most excite you about the robotics industry? Why?

  1. Enhancing capabilities of robots — The idea of enabling robots to do things they’ve never done before is very exciting and opens the door to many new efficiencies across industries.
  2. Cohabitation of robots and humans — I personally find the idea of robots in the home to be exciting. If a robot could help me live at home longer as an elderly person, rather than living in a nursing home, I see that as a very interesting and positive possibility.
  3. Robotics in the medical field — If surgeons could remotely control a robot to perform a surgery elsewhere, that could help bring high quality healthcare to more remote areas and increase access to lifesaving treatments and surgery.

What are the three things that concern you about the robotics industry? Why?

  1. The elimination of jobs that humans want — Robots taking over jobs that people don’t want is one thing, but that should be kept to a minimum. Human to human interaction will always be critical, so I feel it would be concerning if a robot was taking the place of a human to interact directly with another human in certain situations.
  2. If robots were to be used in fields like law enforcement — that personally doesn’t feel right to me. There are certain situations in which human to human interaction would lead to better outcomes in my opinion.
  3. AI and ethics — With the development of AI and the concept of robots becoming self-trained, that could cause a myriad of ethical issues. The combination of AI and robotics in an uncontrolled way, for example, a robot training another robot, is a concern I have.

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?

That risk certainly exists, and its why we need people to study and understand AI ethics. This concept can’t be ignored when we design systems that include robots. Too often in tech, we build first and ask questions later. This is an area where we need to think ahead, and we cannot ignore ethical questions when developing new scientific breakthroughs.

I believe that AI needs to be at the service of humankind — for good — not for controlling freedoms and putting people’s livelihoods at stake.

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?

Do not feel comfortable answering this question as I am not a cybersecurity expert.

Given the cost and resources that it takes to develop robotics, how do you safeguard your intellectual property during development and also once the robot is deployed in industry?

To accelerate the adoption of tactile intelligence within robotics, I believe we need to make a basic level of IP available as an open-source platform to encourage adoption. However, there are critical layers of IP that need to be protected and then monetized through products and services. Critical aspects of your technology that are not easy to patent should be kept as trade secrets within the company.

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?

  • A mix of backgrounds to help you understand robotics systems — I believe that you do not need to be solely focused on robotics to find success in the industry. I think that having a diverse background and skillset across industries can be very helpful.
  • Intellectual curiosity — In this field, it is necessary to push beyond what has been done and explore new areas.
  • Adjacent industry experience — I’ve found personally that people who come into robotics with experience elsewhere in tech or industry usually offer a different perspective and can look at robotics differently than pure roboticists can.
  • Surround yourself with a community of thought leaders — I think it’s important to seek out partners, teammates, and advisors that all bring something new to your understanding of robotics.
  • Ethics — Strong ethics will help build robots that can make the world a better place.

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?

I believe that we need to encourage women to enroll in university programs around robotics, especially by offering special grants and scholarships. I also think that the VC world could help make strides in elevating women in this field. Capital infusion for female founded companies is happening more prominently in other industries, and I think that there is plenty of room to grow in the robotics field.

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. :-)

Putting other people first. I think we could all do a better job of doing good for others before ourselves. And that doesn’t just mean for other human beings, but for all life on this planet. Before we think about ourselves, we should think about what we can do to make all life better. If we focused on what can we do for everyone and everything else, we’d be happier.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

https://gelsight.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.

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David Leichner, CMO at Cybellum
Authority Magazine

David Leichner is a veteran of the high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications